Romano: It's 52 years later, and Pinellas still searches for the right answer in schools

Published Sept. 3, 2016

From here, the trail of broken promises seems endless.

Go back 12 years. Go back 28 years. Go back 52 years to the day Pinellas County began fighting a lawsuit that had accused the county of rigging a zoning system to keep black kids out of white schools.

Every step along the way, the school system has promised black parents a better outcome for their children. And every so often we are reminded that promises are easily forgotten.

You don't have to take my word for it. Just follow the headlines.

As that original 1964 lawsuit was nearing a proposed settlement in 1998, the Pinellas School Board voted unanimously to make a written commitment to improve academic achievement for black students, and to decrease disparities in cases of discipline.

And today?

The U.S. Department of Education has an active civil rights investigation to determine whether black children were denied a quality education in Pinellas County, and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit last week alleging black students have been arrested disproportionately in schools.

The exact issues the School Board swore to correct almost 20 years ago are still major problems today.

"The district has often been willing to promise things, but they never seem to expect to have to follow through,'' said Enrique Escarraz, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. "I wouldn't say anybody has been individually dishonest, but institutionally they seem to be lacking.''

There is no simple explanation. And there is no villain to point a finger at.

Good intentions have been a large part of this story, but good outcomes have been much more elusive. So the result is a school district that seems to be in permanent denial. As if detailed plans and warm hearts should be enough, even if evidence suggests the county lags far behind other Florida districts.

Escarraz has been part of this fight since joining the original lawsuit in 1973. He was there for the start of enforced busing, and he was there when the School Board convinced a judge that the practice was no longer necessary. He's worked with seven Pinellas superintendents and gotten countless assurances.

Escarraz helped pressure the School Board into acknowledging the achievement gap and discipline disparity problem in the late 1990s, and he finds himself making the same arguments even as a generation of students has come and gone.

"They persist in trying to show how good they are doing, instead of trying to figure out what's happening and what needs to be fixed,'' Escarraz said. "I know it's human nature to not want to be blamed, but you can't fix a problem if you're not acknowledging it. And I think the district has always had a problem recognizing and acknowledging the problem.''

You can point a finger at students, and say they need to accept responsibility. But how do you blame a child who starts behind the curve and is never able to catch up? And you can point the finger at parents, and say they are failing their own children. But that ignores the role poverty plays in this drama.

This isn't an indictment of teachers, principals or resource officers either.

Instead, it's a lament. All these years later, we're fighting the same battles again. It's a sin. And a tragedy. So how do we allow it to continue?