The U.S. Department of Education has opened another investigation into Pinellas County Schools.
The Southern Poverty Law Center announced Thursday that a complaint filed by the group in August will be investigated by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights. The center contends the school district disproportionately disciplines black and disabled students.
In a Nov. 21 letter addressed to the center, the federal office said it would investigate whether the district discriminated against a disabled black student and a disabled Hispanic student at Richard L. Sanders School in Pinellas Park by subjecting them to more discipline, arrests and restraint than white and nondisabled students.
More generally, the office also said it would look into whether the district disciplines black students more severely than students of other races countywide, and if it uses more restraint and severe discipline on disabled students.
The investigation "demonstrates the fact that there's so many issues in Pinellas," said Amir Whitaker, the SPLC's lawyer.
School system spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said the district is aware of the investigation and will fully cooperate to provide information.
A 58-page complaint filed by the SPLC said black students in Pinellas are nearly four times as likely to be arrested as white students, and students with disabilities are nearly three times as likely to be referred to law enforcement as students without disabilities.
The incident involving a disabled black student and a disabled Hispanic student at Sanders began as a food fight that turned violent. The two students involved intervened to stop a male student from beating up a female student. One of the two was pepper sprayed, and both were arrested.
"It's a common occurrence the way they described it," Whitaker said of his clients. "It's kind of the culture of the school. You're going to see students go out in handcuffs."
During the 2014-15 school year, Sanders had one of the highest arrest rates in Florida: 58 times the state average. Black students made up 93 percent of the arrests.
The federal investigation is "long overdue," said Johnny Watson, an education committee co-chair for Faith and Action for Strength Together, a faith-based Pinellas group that has advocated for civil citations in lieu of arrests. "All the evidence points to the fact that they are guilty in that regard."
This is the second investigation this year opened by the Office for Civil Rights into the Pinellas School District. Another investigation was launched in April to determine if the school district discriminated on the basis of race in the district's gifted programs, and if black students were given equal access to teachers, curriculum and other resources.
A third case against the district was opened in 2014 to investigate discipline practices related to students with disabilities.
A separate state review finished in August found that students at five failing elementary schools in St. Petersburg that were predominantly black and poor were far more likely during the 2014-15 school year to be taught by an inexperienced teacher than students enrolled in higher-performing schools.
Contact Colleen Wright at email@example.com or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.