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U.S. Education Department opens civil rights investigation into Pinellas schools

The U.S. Department of Education on Monday opened a civil rights investigation into whether the Pinellas County School District systematically discriminates against black children, the agency said.

The review will determine if Pinellas is denying black children access to the courses and special programs they need to be successful in high school and after graduation.

It also will assess whether the district is denying black children access to quality teachers, school leaders and support staff, an education department official told the Tampa Bay Times.

The Education Department's Office for Civil Rights took the rare step of launching the review on its own initiative in response to "Failure Factories," a yearlong investigation by the Times that traced the decline of five schools in St. Petersburg's black neighborhoods.

The federal investigation could carry the most serious consequences yet for the School Board and district leaders in the wake of the series.

If reviewers find the district isn't complying with federal laws, they can require district leaders to make a wide range of substantial changes — or risk penalties that include losing federal funding.

That investigators opened the case on their own signals they're confident they'll find serious problems, legal experts say.

FAILURE FACTORIES: How five once-average schools were turned into the worst in Florida

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Education Department declined to comment further on Monday, citing the ongoing review.

Five of the seven members of the Pinellas County School Board did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

Neither did superintendent Mike Grego.

Board member Ken Peluso said he welcomed the scrutiny by federal reviewers. "I'm certain they'll be happy with their findings, especially given the work we've been doing in the last year or two," Peluso said.

Board member Janet Clark said she wanted to consult School Board attorney David Koperski before speaking to a reporter.

A district spokeswoman referred questions to Koperski, who said he was reviewing a notice letter from federal officials.

The federal review centers around key findings of "Failure Factories," which showed how the school district re-segregated five elementary schools in St. Petersburg's black neighborhoods and then neglected them until they became some of the worst in the state.

The series detailed the struggles of students in Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose elementary schools, where children were failing reading and math amid unchecked violence and an ever-changing cast of teachers and principals.

Members of the county's black community on Monday said the civil rights investigation was long overdue.

"The community has known for some time that there's been a disconnect between the School Board and the reality of what's happening in those schools," said state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, whose children attend Pinellas schools.

He said the School Board has been "playing a shell game" by blaming parents and the children themselves rather than taking responsibility for their actions.

Rose Smith-Hayes, a member of a parent group that meets at Melrose and grandmother of a child who went to Maximo, said: "I welcome the investigation because I think the School Board has laid down on the job."

She added: "They knew this was going on forever."

U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor on Monday said she hoped the added attention led to permanent change in Pinellas, where school leaders have seemingly been unwilling to address problems on their own. "Why weren't promises kept to support students in south St. Pete after the end of integration?" said Castor, a Tampa Democrat who first asked the U.S. Education Department to intervene in August. "There was a full-blown lawsuit and promises made, conditions made. They did not fulfill them."

Federal civil rights investigations can take months to complete.

They typically begin with a visit from Education Department attorneys, who interview parents, teachers and district leaders.

The reviewers ultimately share their findings with the School Board and district leaders. If the review uncovers violations, a district can enter into an agreement with the federal government to avoid penalties.

As part of such deals, the Education Department typically will monitor the school system as it brings itself into compliance with civil rights laws.

After reading "Failure Factories," former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan flew to St. Petersburg with John King, who was confirmed last month as Duncan's successor. The two visited Campbell Park on Oct. 23.

During the visit, Duncan called the plight of the five schools a "man-made" disaster and said the School Board and district leaders committed "education malpractice" by allowing their steep decline.

Problems continue at the schools today.

Despite a string of policy changes, hires and new initiatives rolled out by the district in the past six months, children in the five schools still are failing at some of the highest rates in Florida.

Test scores made public in February showed that all five schools remain among the worst in the state.