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Pinellas school district faces another discrimination complaint

Published Sep. 1, 2016

The Pinellas County school district faces yet another complaint about discriminating against black students.

The Southern Poverty Law Center on Wednesday filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. The 58-page complaint claimed officials disproportionately arrested black students and students with disabilities and subjected them to restraints such as pepper spray for common misbehavior between 2010 to 2015.

The group's lawyer, Amir Whitaker, said the district should cease arresting students for disorderly conduct. According to the complaint, that charge is usually given for school fights that don't result in serious injury.

Whitaker also said arrests, which the group says disproportionately fall on black students, should give way to civil citations.

"What we see, it's primarily being used on black children and it doesn't need to happen," he said.

Among the group's findings:

• Black students in the district, which has about 101,000 students, are nearly four times as likely to be arrested as white students. Students with disabilities are nearly three times as likely to be referred to law enforcement as students without disabilities.

• Students were arrested more than 3,800 times in the five school years between 2010 to 2015.

• Beginning in June 2014, school district officials worked with law enforcement agencies to encourage fewer referrals. Still, the complaint read, 72 percent of Florida school districts arrested students less frequently than Pinellas in the 2014-15 school year.

• A total of 939 arrests for disorderly conduct occurred between 2010 and 2015, according to the complaint. Pinellas students are more than 20 times as likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct as students in Miami-Dade public schools, which reports the most fights in the state.

• While black students represent about 19 percent of the district's students, they made up nearly 60 percent of all school-based arrests, and 71 percent of disorderly conduct arrests in 2014-15. In at least 19 schools, at least 80 percent of students arrested were black.

• Richard L. Sanders School, which caters to students with disabilities, had one of the highest arrest rates in Florida — 58 times the state average — during the 2014-15 school year. Black students made up 93 percent of the arrests.

The complaint urged the school district to revise its arrest policies and practices, eliminate the use of pepper spray in school and provide training for school-based officers on bias education and adolescent development.

In January, district officials announced significant changes to its disciplinary procedures, including stricter guidelines on giving out-of-school suspensions and changes to the attendance policy to not penalize suspended students from missing school.

According to a statement issued by the school district, the number of student arrests has been on a steady decline, dropping from 767 in the 2012-13 school year to 482 in 2015-2016. They also said 16 students were involved in nine pepper spray incidents.

Whitaker said the district made adjustments after pressure from the SPLC and community organizations.

"Do we feel its enough? No, because our case demonstrates that ... restorative practices are not touching all of the schools," and arrests are not documented in the same way.

The school district's statement acknowledged the complaint and listed measures taken to train staff members at Sanders, further reduce arrests and educate assistant principals on restorative practices.

"The district welcomes the opportunity to review existing practices and determine if there are additional best practices that can be implemented to continue the significant reduction in student arrests," the statement read.

The school district is also under a federal civil rights investigation for systemic discrimination against black children. The review includes determining if the district is denying black children access to the courses and special programs they need to be successful in high school and after graduation as well as access to quality teachers, school leaders and support staff.

Contact Colleen Wright at cwright@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

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