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Complaint Cites Broad, Harsh Discrimination Against Black Students in Flagler Schools

| August 7, 2012

From the outside looking in: a 22-page complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center with the federal Office of Civil Rights calls for an investigation into discriminatory practices against black students in Flagler County schools.

From the outside looking in: a 22-page complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center with the federal Office of Civil Rights calls for an investigation into discriminatory practices against black students in Flagler County schools.

Last Updated: Wednesday, 12:58 p.m., with NAACP response.

The allegations, and stated facts, are devastating: While black students make up just 16 percent of the population in Flagler County’s school district, they accounted for 45 percent of school-based referrals to the justice system in the 2010-11 school year. In the last school year, when the district laid off 48 teachers in cost-saving measures, almost half of those losing their jobs were black, reducing the proportion of black teachers in the district to just 3 percent of the faculty—half where it stood 10 years ago. Florida law lists eight examples of petty or misdemeanor offenses that should not be subject to school districts’ zero-tolerance policies, including disorderly conduct, fighting, disrupting a school function, simple assault, simple battery and vandalism of less than $1,000. Yet despite the law, no less than 83 students arrested in school in 2010-11 (or 78 percent of those arrested overall) were arrested for misdemeanor offenses. It’s not clear what the proportion of blacks were among those arrested by police, but while blacks formed just 16 percent of the school population, they accounted for 31 percent of students receiving out-of-school suspensions, and 31 percent of students receiving in-school suspensions. And blacks constituted 69 percent of the students expelled in 2010-11.

Academically in Flagler schools, not a single black student was enrolled in an Advanced Placement science class in 2009-10, and just 35 black students took AP classes at all. In the entire district, just 12 black students were enrolled in the gifted education program. Overall, with white, black and other minority students combined, Flagler County—an A rated school district for four straight years until its fall to B last year—ranked 66 out of 67 counties in the percentage of high school graduates who planned to continue their education.

The facts are listed in a devastating, 22-page civil rights complaint filed by the Montgomery, Ala.-based Southern Poverty Law Center on July 24 with the Civil Rights Office of the federal Department of Education on July 24, one of four such letters filed by the law center regarding alleged or perceived infractions against black students in five of Florida’s 67 counties—Flagler, Bay, Escambia, Okaloosa and Suwanee. Flagler has the second highest household income among the five ($48,000 to Escambia’s $54,000), and the second highest black population, after Escambia’s 23 percent.

“We’re in the middle of pulling all that stuff bec we want to make sure that were all looking at the same reports and the same numbers,” Flagler County School Superintendent Janet Valentine said early Wednesday morning. “Any time that anybody in this community has concerns we’ve got to take it seriously.” But the superintendent said she did not believe there are discrepancies between the district’s policies and procedures and the way they’re enacted.

Still, Valentine said the school board will likely want to hold a workshop on the issue, and the district itself might, if the numbers warrant it, conduct an internal investigation. “If the data suggests there’s a particular area we need to look at more deeply, we’ll do that,” Valentine said.

For now, Kristy Gavin, the school district’s attorney, said, the district doesn’t have anything legal to respond to, regarding the law center’s complaint. In other words it’s not a lawsuit, but merely a letter to the Office of Civil Rights requesting an investigation. “We are waiting for a notification from the Office of Civil Rights as to whether or not they’ll be conducting an investigation,” Gavin said. “The problem we have is we’re not sure whether they secured their numbers from and whether or not it’s from a year ago, two years ago, five years ago. We really have not looked into the numbers.”

Gavin added: “The numbers give us concern as to what they’re indicating but we have to take a look at where those numbers were derived and we can’t look at it in a vacuum. We have to look at it on a case by case basis as to what created those numbers. But certainly it does give us concerns.”

The school board became aware of the complaint only on Tuesday. In march, the Southern Poverty Law Center made a presentation to the local NAACP on similar issues. The district invited the law center and the NAACP to a meeting to go over the issues. “We did not receive a response back from the Southern Poverty Law Center and the NAACP indicated to us that well, we’re working in conjunction with them. So that’s where we stood,” Gavin said.

That’s not quite the case, Flagler NAACP President Linda Haywood said Monday morning. Members of the NAACP have been meeting with Valentine and her staff going back two years, conveying numbers and concerns. “This is not a surprise, and they’ve had plenty of notice,” Haywood said. “We’ve had meetings where this has been discussed,” including a meeting in March, attended by district administrative staff. About two months ago, the NAACP sent a letter to Sue Dickinson, chairman of the school board, signaling more action on the matter. The letter got no response, Haywood said.

The NAACP president said it was important to remember that Flagler County was the last county in the state to desegregate its schools. “Not a lot has changed,” Haywood said. “If you look at the amount of employees hired by the county, they’re basically white.”

Complaints of racial discrimination, particularly on school buses, with regards to out-of-school suspensions and the hiring of black faculty, have been anecdotally heard around the district and the county for years, and typically voiced at NAACP forums, when candidates for school board or sheriff or judge have run for election (as in the present cycle). But hard evidence has been scant.

In September 2011, the district responded to a request by FlaglerLive for a breakdown of black administrators and faculty in the Flagler district, The numbers showed that just 4 percent of teachers were black (92 percent were white), with almost a third of those concentrated at Flagler Palm Coast High School. The proportion of black administrators was 13 percent—eight out of a total of 64, most of them principals or assistant principals. There were no administrators in the custodial, food service, maintenance, technology or transportation departments. That was before the district enacted further staff cuts.

The complaint’s filing coincides with the Flagler district’s attempt to pass a referendum that would renew a half-penny sales tax that would pay for construction, repairs and technology in the schools. The referendum is on the Aug. 14 ballot. The district facing some resistance by right-wing voters pushing an anti-tax agenda, is relying on the black community (along with teachers and parents with students in schools) to give the referendum a boost. The complaint, striking a note discordant with 21st century ideals–and district mission statements–may dim enthusiasm among some voters.

The poverty law center complaint, illustrated by the cases of three students (identified only by their initials) alleges “discriminatory disciplinary removal and disproportionate arrests” of black students in Flagler schools. It underscores the allegation that while the student code of conduct sets out disciplinary rules, those rules can be vague, while the ultimate decision—short of school board action—to gravely discipline a student rests too subjectively with each individual school’s principal, with discriminatory results. The district, the complaint alleges, “through its use of vague and ambiguous disciplinary procedures, punishes African American students more harshly and more frequently than white students. The district’s disciplinary policies are so vague they have been enforced in inconsistent ways, creating a disparate impact.”

K.K., for example, is a 14-year-old black student who was in the 8th grade at Indian Trails Middle School last year. He was written up 19 times, only 13 of which were documented in the district’s computer print-outs, according to the complaint. The student was suspended for 15 days, had three days of in-school suspension, was suspended from riding the bus three times, had a Saturday detention, and was disciplined in additional, lesser ways. One of those write-ups was the result of K.K. being disruptive after being referred to the office for being merely tardy. He was written up for “defiance of authority,” and as a result spent the rest of the day in suspension, got an additional day’s suspension, and five days of out-of-school suspension. The complaint alleges that various infractions are the result of petty misbehavior, but with severe consequences out of proportion with the offense—and leveled disproportionately at black students.

In the case of student L.H., for example, another black eighth grader at Indian Trails Middle School, “minor misconduct” led to 19 write-ups, three in-school suspensions, four student conferences and various warnings. The complaint’s list of consequences, however, outlines what also appears to be numerous attempts by the school administration to handle the situation fairly, with a series of warnings and conferences designed to correct the situation before it escalates further. Some of the student’s referrals could not be documented when the Southern poverty Law Center asked for such documentation, however, lending credence to the center’s claim that consequences could be arbitrary, and poorly documented.

“While some general definitions are provided,” the complaint states, referring to the code of conduct, “there are no guidelines on what punishment is to be applied to a certain behavior.” More alarmingly, the complaint continues, “corresponding punishments vary without explanation, from school to school, principal to principal and teacher to teacher.” For example, “a classroom disruption might result in a warning in one school and five day suspension in another school. There is no standard for which behavior qualifies for disciplinary measures or which measure is appropriate for such behavior. How misconduct is defined and punished depends on what school the student attends. There is little consistency throughout the district.”

The school district is not taking the numbers at face value, however. “I’m not saying it’s skewed ort incorrect,” Gavin, the district’s attorney, said, “but what I am saying is I don’t know what they utilized to drive their numbers, so as you know when somebody is reflecting data, you can take data and put it in the chart and make it say something positive, and you can take that same data and make it say something negative. It depends on the way you’re looking at it.”

The complaint stresses that while any student, including elementary age students, may be removed from class and subjected to detention, suspension or placed in alternative school or settings, “African American students are subject to such removal at a disproportionately higher rate than their white peers,” while scanty evidence shows any benefit to removing students from a learning environment.

The complaint asks that the federal office for civil rights initiate an investigation into the allegations, with input from the community, while requesting of the Flagler school district to “create a corrective action plan” that would comply with the federal Civil Rights Act.

Cases listed in other counties could be harsher: a 10-year-old student was suspended repeatedly in Suwanee County schools for non-violent behavior, but was not provided him with homework, nor the ability to make up the missed work. The complaints illustrate how the school districts have imposed long-term suspensions on children as young as 8 for minor rule infractions such as tardiness, inappropriate cell phone usage, talking in class and dress code violations.

“Unforgiving disciplinary policies are cutting short the futures of countless African-American students across Florida and the entire nation,” said Stephanie Langer, a staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Florida office. “If school districts truly want to provide a quality education to all of their students, they will reform these discriminatory policies.”

While each district has changed its written policies, practices have not changed, the center says. Many school districts continue to suspend students for lengthy periods, send them to alternative schools, expel them or unnecessarily refer them to the juvenile justice system.

“Local school districts and state officials must make reforms that improve the effectiveness of school disciplinary policies without forcing children out of the classroom,” said Tania Galloni, managing attorney of the law center’s Florida office. “School discipline should never deprive a child of an education, but that is happening in these school districts. What was once considered minor misconduct has become an opportunity to punish or even criminalize a student’s behavior.”

Flagler County Schools discrimination complaint by the Southern Poverty Law Center

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79 Responses for “Complaint Cites Broad, Harsh Discrimination Against Black Students in Flagler Schools”

  1. Sea dog says:

    I worked as a substitute teacher for Flagler County schools for a number of years. I did not see any treatment of blacks that seem to be racially motivated. What I did see was a school system that contained chlldren from up to 78 countries. I did see enought to come to the conclusions that local blacks as a group were less motivated to learn then any other group.


  2. w.ryan says:

    Why is it so hard to believe that these kids in the complaint were wronged. Deep south…You’re starting to think broader but why is it that race has nothing to do with it?


    • some guy says:

      Its not that any find it hard to believe the kids BUT that there is NO evidence of racial wrongdoing on the part of the school system. Just because a small % of kids get in the most trouble does not mean anything but that. It has 0 to do with the color of their skin BUT may have to do with the culture they are brought up in.


    • Deep South says:

      Because of the number of times these kids were written up. As a parent I would have never, I mean never have allow a school to write up my child that many times without me taking action. I mean come on 19 times. where were the parents. Obviously these kids had no parental support and had to fend for themselves.


  3. ??? says:

    There’s one way to resolve this issue and eliminate the racial component. Create a standardized point system for referals. Create level one (ID’s, dress code, tardys etc.), level two (disruptive behavior, swearing in class, skipping etc) and level three (fighting, drugs etc) assign point levels for each offence. Once you reach a predetermined point total then you get a standard penalty. In school suspension, dentention, out of school suspension, just something that is appropriate. This takes personal feeling or attitude out of the equation. Then everyone will be treated equally.


    • Nancy N. says:

      Something like a standardized point system only solves part of the issue (just ask anyone who has had to deal with our state’s point system for felony sentencing). It doesn’t take personal feeling or attitude out entirely because it doesn’t solve the perception issue in determining someone has committed an offense in the first place – what constitutes disruptive behavior? What is disrespecting a staff member? etc) Some of these things are judgement calls. Some of these things are things that sometimes a staff member will choose to let slide occasionally (like a tardy) if the kid is a “good” kid.


  4. Dave says:

    So many people on here keep saying it is not a racial issue but indeed it is or the so called NAACP and the SPLC would not be involved, come on people do we really need these groups to defend kids in the school system when it has already been proven the kids are troubled ? We do have a group of people that are whites that stick their noses where it dos not belong known as the KKK which is another useless group of people that need to be abolished just like NAACP and the SPLC , Everyone is equal no matter what race or color with that said like I always say if parents would do their job at home with their kids and stop asking the school board to raise their kids then their kids would be a lot better off, the main issue here is why are the parents of these troubled kids not helping their kids out ?


  5. Songbird says:

    Anonymous, actually yes, it does. :)


  6. Anonymous says:

    dave the why and what of the “punishment” to the kids was not racial BUT the involment of NAACP/SPLC is all about race and not why/what the kids did to be in trouble


  7. w.ryan says:

    ??? – As long as there is people involvement there will be bias! Fact is this is a more complex problem than the comprehensions of many of those on this thread can understand. Many of the comments already show the depth of the problem. Thank you all for shedding further light on the issue at hand.


  8. I don’t know if I should be more shocked at the complaint in question or the majority of comments (and likes for those comments) in this thread. For all of you who actually have kids enrolled in public schools here, why don’t you ask them if they think there is racism in our schools, on our school buses, and on our playgrounds. Hopefully, if your kids haven’t yet been brainwashed into believing that as someone here put “blacks are just more violent” or already believe that our inherent behaviour is somehow predicated on our race, nationality or other bits of dna, they’ll actually tell you how it is.

    No wonder this is the same damn districts and school board that was more afraid of the word “nigger” spoken in context from the stage than it is of actual racist practices…

    W. Ryan – I have a feeling you are speaking to a bunch of people who simply can’t see unfairness if they can’t relate to the ones thus treated.


  9. palmcoaster says:

    This time I have to agree with inna hardison as yes, there is an underlined prejudice in this county at least as perceived. In my 21 years here and with no kids in school ever, is obvious in many other dependencies..
    And better no woman have to go to court for domestic violence protection, because I can guarantee that the judge no matter what will rule against her. Also my perception of all these years. Worst even if a minority person has to be in court given a problem…forget it!


  10. I'm glad I left PC says:

    Every child from kindergarten through grad 12 is afforded an equal education. It falls on the parents though to take responsibility and nurture their children, teach them what is right and wrong. That is what it use to be. Today, if a child misbehaves at home, you can’t spank anymore its child abuse these kids are protected by groups like the American Civil Liberties Union!!! this organization has eroded the back bone of American values and principles, teachers have to put up with disruptive children who weigh down the other kids who want to learn. That is crap!!!! white, black, or Hispanic if they do not want to learn do not make them intrude on the ones who do!!! Get them out!!! too much money being spent to protect these little roaches. Alternative schools may work but there will some who will still wreck it for others.
    It starts at home, if a child wants to learn they will, if the home is broken look for the signs, in order to save these kids they need to be helped in the elementry schools where a positve role model can help.
    The younger they are the better chance for help, the older they are the more diffacult the problem becomes. My youngest son is enrolled in honors classes because he EARNED IT!!!!! it wasn’t given to him. He can now concentrate in class since the ones who do not want to learn are not allowed in. You need the grades in this school to attain honors. Public schools are just becoming dumping grounds, its a shame. The Federal Government has once again failed us!!!! Give the states control of education they did a better job and abolish the department of Education and save us taxpayers billions of $$$.


  11. Becky says:

    It really isn’t a black/white issue. It is an issue of culture. Or lack of a successful family and parenting model being reproduced from generation to generation. Here is a great article on where the lawsuits against racial disparity in classroom punishment began… And one more on crime statistics, and how they aren’t always what they seem…very interesting, though taken from the UK..


  12. Reality Check says:

    The FCSD has had numerous complaints filed over the pasr decade, the problem being that they are most kept from the public eye, The FCSD reports to the state of FL DOE and they do not want to look bad, after all the FCSD looks bad so does the state. Look up all the stste complaints filled against Flager over the years, the problem is the state will cover up as much as possible to avoid any bad PR.


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