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For Black Students in Flagler Schools, Some Progress But “Systemic Bias” and Startling Disparities Persist

| January 27, 2015

The Souther Poverty Law Center's Amir Whitaker, speaking candidly to the Flagler NAACP Tuesday evening about lingering bias and racism in Flagler schools. (c FlaglerLive)

The Souther Poverty Law Center’s Amir Whitaker, speaking candidly to the Flagler NAACP Tuesday evening about lingering bias and racism in Flagler schools. (c FlaglerLive)

Two and a half years ago the Flagler County School District was the target of a devastating civil rights complaint by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Put simply, the state of Black education in Flagler County was not good. Much of the complaint’s criticism focused on the disproportionate disciplining of black students—and the disproportionate lay-offs of black faculty, whose black ranks had been cut in half over a decade.

The complaint went on at length, triggering attempts by the district to address the issues the complaint raised, attempts Superintendent Jacob Oliva said have led to a lot of cooperative work with the law center.

Tuesday evening, before a full-house crowd, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Amir Whitaker, a staff attorney with the center and an educator, was the featured speaker at the Flagler County branch of the NAACP’s monthly meeting.

“I’m happy to say that here in Flagler there’s been tremendous progress in the past few year,” he said to a crowd of about 125. But this was because of what we were saying in terms of the arrests and the suspensions,” which have been reduced across Florida, a state that ranks at the top of the nation’s table in suspensions. “We are trying to work together,” he said, describing the relationship with Flagler as more open than in any of the five counties’ school systems he’s responsible for in Florida.

His goal Tuesday evening was to focus on remaining problems, including historical problems-the result of Jim Crow’s history—that have yet to be addressed, and to outline matters that have improved.

Among the improvements: the district’s ranking (12th out of 67 states), based on standardized schools, its “unprecedented” focus on technology, doubling post-secondary attendance in the last few years, and “decreasing the overall number of suspensions consistently, and offering more options” to students. “We’ve seen significant reduction in the amount of students being arrested here in Flagler,” Whitaker said. (The current sheriff, Jim Manfre, is a member of the NAACP.)

Still, the poverty center and the NAACP are still concerned with one particular area: Suspensions overall may be decreasing, but the suspensions of black students, already disproportionate, are increasing, as are expulsions.

Blacks account for 16 percent of Flagler’s population, but accounted for 33 percent of suspensions in 2013. That increased to 36 percent in 2014. The number of black students suspended more than once has also increased, and is more than three times the proportion of white students.

An unvarnished portrait of a district that still expels a disproportionate number of blacks even as it tries alternatives.

Meeting with Flagler faculty, Whitaker said, one never knows who’s racist and who isn’t. But he did have one encounter with a faculty member who clearly was—who wanted to see more suspensions for blacks. Whitaker said in most instances most people who may be inclined to be racist may not know it, and would dispute having such tendencies. But those tendencies are there. “There’s a systemic bias,” he said. “No one is affected by it more than young people.”

Whitaker showed a three-minute video that made his point. The video features a young man, a white man, a thief, who saws his way through a bicycle in a park-like setting to steal it. Several people walk by either indifferently or to ask innocuous questions, never going further. The young man is then replaced with a young black man. The situation is entirely different: passer-by after passer-by immediately questions the man suspiciously, one whips out a cell phone to call the cops, another yells at him for theft. The video goes further, showing the experiment with a young white woman sawing her way through the chain. Two middle age men not only stop, but ask her if she needs a hand. The piece is excerpted from an episode of ABC’s “What Would You Do,” which aired in June 2013. See the full segment below.

The focus has to be on reducing suspensions, Whitaker said, because the less one is in school, the less one learns. A student who misses days of school falls further behind, worsening matters.

Whitaker also made the not-minor point that suspensions increase risks to students being suspended by exposing them to situations that are less safe than at school. His illustration to that point was Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford. Martin had been suspended from his South Florida school and was sent to his father in Sanford as a result. Whitaker did not say that the suspension led to Martin’s killing, but that the suspension played an unnecessary role that could have been avoided.

Suspensions don’t do anything for the issue,” Whitaker said. “Punishment alone is never enough, that’s why in our criminal justice system we see 70 percent of the people go in and end up going back in.” Suspending students, he said, doubles their risk of dropping out of school.

Whitaker acknowledged that the Flagler district has been experimenting to reduce suspensions. “We want more of that,” he said, “to see the disparities go down.” He described the matter as a civil rights issue, because every child has the right “to be in that classrom, receiving that instruction.”

Flagler is one of 16 out of 67 counties in Florida that are still under the Department of Justice’s jurisdiction because of the districts’ deeply segregated past, Whitaker said (the county’s schools were segregated until the 1970s). “For most of history, there were two separate systems in Flagler, on purpose,” Whitaker said. “They were preparing for two different types of people.” He added: “That’s something that we’ve inherited here in Flagler. I know thats something that doesn’t sit well” with school district officials, he said, “but that’s the foundation.”

The aim, Whitaker said, is to lay down a new foundation, but he repeatedly stressed that “implicit bias and systematic inequality” has not been eradicated, even if it may not prevail as it did during the segregation era. “What could be new is the momentum we put behind it” to work through the issues, Whitaker said.

Another enduring concern: the absence of blacks’ access to certain resources. For example, almost no black students are in dual enrollment–attending both high school and college–than whites: 52 white males to one black male. The disparity elicited an astounded few “wows” from the crowd.

Just as startling: Blacks account for just 4 percent of gifted classes. “This is a trend all through the state of Florida, and again it might not be deliberate biases,” Whitaker said, but there is a bias, he said.

And in a county with a population that is 16 percent black, just 4 percent of the district’s teachers are black.

“These are issues we have to address, our leadership is not being prepared,” Whitaker said, acknowledging that when just 26 percent of students pass the reading FCAT, “we have to accept some responsibility.”

His goal: “We want to try to eliminate out of school suspension,” he said, at least for non -violent offenders, he qualified. (He is meeting with district officials Wednesday to talk about some of those issues.)

Whitaker early in his talk invited Katrina Townsend, the district student services director, to speak of additional improvements as the district sees them. She spoke of the “team effort” approach, which extends to parents and others concerned about schools. “I offer you an open invitation” to visit schools, she said. (Jacob Oliva, the superintendent, was at the meeting—he became a member of the NAACP tonight—but was called away.) Close to two dozen faculty members, including several principals, attended the meeting, as did Janet McDonald, the school board’s newest member. She was the only board member in attendance, though she left during the talk.

When Whitaker queried members of the audience for their concerns, he heard complaints about a lack of transparency in the district’s hiring process, which, to some, appears to discourage blacks from working on school faculties, and he heard about the need to include teachers in the sort of discussions designed to reduce or eliminate some of the problems Whitaker had been presenting.

He also heard about school cops, or School Resource Deputies, conducting “interrogations” on campus, without their parents’ knowledge, and where students can easily “talk yourself into charges.” Eric Josey, a member of the NAACP’s executive board, spoke those words.

“School resource officers should be a resource for our children, they should not be an arm of the criminal justice system,” Linda Haywood, president of the local branch of the NAACP, said. “We should demand that they are trained to be resource officers, not an extension of the juvenile justice system.”

That prompted a motion from an NAACP member to bring the district’s contract with the Sheriff’s Office (which provides the district’s half dozen deputies) to the NAACP for examination. The motion was approved even as Whitaker was ending his talk.

The key ingredient to a students success, one member of the crowd who described himself as an educator and author said, is parental involvement. “Racism is another factor,” he said, stressing that “racism is alive and well.”

“We’ve been very sweet, kind and gentle. Enough is enough,” Lynnette Callender, a recently defeated candidate for the school board, said.

ABC’s “What Would You Do”:

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21 Responses for “For Black Students in Flagler Schools, Some Progress But “Systemic Bias” and Startling Disparities Persist”

  1. TeddyBallGame says:

    Enough with the old excuses. I am neither heartless nor any kind of conservative. But it’s time for the black community to take an honest and hard look in the mirror and start demanding more of itself.

  2. tomc says:

    The real issue is behavior, not color.

  3. It's always about race, right? says:

    Yes, I’m sure the head of human resources, who is black, has been systematically making sure that black teachers aren’t hired. And I’m sure that students are suspended because of their skin color, not their behavior.

    • Nancy N says:

      Black students have a long history in Flagler Schools of getting disproportionately harsh discipline for similar offenses to whites. White kids frequently do not get suspended for committing the same offense that a black kid will get suspended for committing. THAT fact is about skin color, not behavior.

      The head of human resources isn’t the only one with input into the hiring process in the school district. There’s also factors like our ability to attract minority candidates in the first place, given the publicity surrounding the district’s racial issues, and the possibility that minority teachers are being run off by subtle racism in the community and leaving to take jobs elsewhere when they can.

      We have a problem with racism in our local schools. You may be too blinded by white privilege to notice it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

    • Anonymous says:

      People need to take responsibility for their own actions and stop trying to blame everyone else for their actions.

  4. Sherry Epley says:

    The “What Would You Do” spot was very telling. Perception is “everything”! I say again, perception is “everything”! Bias is a systemic cancer in our county, state and country. . . yet it is all too often ignored or undetected.

    What does it say when community leaders make the smart political move to “officially” join groups like NAACP, but then don;t bother to stay for the entire meeting? What does it say when they also conveniently avoid entering into any casual personal discussion with other members after such meetings? Just more political “lip service”, per chance?

    Congratulations on the progress! Unfortunately, it appears there is still a very long way to go.

    • Real Florida residence says:

      Graduating from FPC in it’s very 3rd year of existance wasn’t easy 74 thru 77. So all you of tell me how did we make it and all of my classmates black and white are still or even closer today after 37 years of class reunions? My family has put 125 graduates through FPC with only one family member arrested for theft of a teacher’s cell phone. Irronically I made the arrest myself lol. Resource officer number one job is to prevent any harm (colinbine killings) during school hours! Ask any student and if their trueful, they’ll tell you that their officer is a coach, counselor and mentor long before police actions are taken. It sounds as if you all would rather have teachers face off with reputed Gang members, irrate father’s with guns, bathroom hangouts where narcotics are being sold every period. Be cafeful what you wish for, I’ve seen it all!

    • Ray Thorne says:

      Ms.Epley, I usually don’t find myself in agreement with you but your second paragraph hits the nail on the head. It is a conversation Ive had myself. Seems Its all about the votes and not the people. Glad to see someone else has seen it and is aware.

  5. It’s always a hoot to hear the Southern Poverty Law Center talking about “racial bias.”

    As it turns out, 95% of the SPLC’s 20-member Senior Program Staff in their Montgomery, Alabama, headquarters are white, which is rather odd for a company billing itself as a major civil rights organization.

    As lousy as that diversity number is, it’s still better than the SPLC’s top executive team, which is 100% white, just as it has been since the SPLC opened for business in 1971.

    Maybe it’s time for the white millionaires who run the SPLC to practice what they preach.

    • Babe Fraz says:

      Review the Civil Rights movement. Blacks were being lynched, murdered, burned out and dismissed by the news media as “business as usual” before whites joined the struggle against racial injustice. We’re grateful for the leadership of our sisters and brothers (Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, ) who demonstrated with MLK ; led and who continue to put their lives on the line to show the World the atrocities occurring in the this country. It was and still organizations like the southern Law Poverty Center, “100%” Administration that has the access and resources to a news media (whose very existence is based degradation. What do you read? What arev the hot topics in your of hfriends and colleagues? Do you re-hash the same old rhetoric, the imagery that “Blacks are criminals, murderers, killed or need to be locked up, etc.”. Take the blinders off…SPLC speaks for ALL who are victims of discrimination in a racist society. Until we all stand up to the “billionaires” who control our very existence – those financial interest is based on continuing the divisiveness between “middle” and racial” disharmony.. “Homelessness, poverty, education, quality healthcare knows no racial boundaries. It deprives each of us of social progression. Inequalities in life will judge us in ways that we can’t fathom.

  6. Lancer says:

    What does it say when people are absolved from being responsible for themselves and their behavior?

    It says leftists have made decisions based on emotion and shelved their logic and reasoning, once again.

    At the end of the day, we are all exactly where we are because of the culmination of personal decisions that have been made in our lives.

    Education is important. If you don’t take it seriously, it has future consequences. It is very easy to avoid poverty in this country. One has to only do a few things:

    1. Stay in school as long as possible.
    2. Don’t have kids until you can afford it.
    3. Don’t quit a job until you have another, better one lined up.
    4. Take seriously, your power of choice.

  7. Sherry Epley says:

    WORTH READING AND REALLY UNDERSTANDING: This from a study conducted by a white professor at Rutgers:

    There’s a comforting-to-white-people fiction about racism and racial inequality in the United States today: They’re caused by a small, recalcitrant group who cling to their egregiously inaccurate beliefs in the moral, intellectual and economic superiority of white people.

    The reality: racism and racial inequality aren’t just supported by old ideas, unfounded group esteem or intentional efforts to mistreat others, said Nancy DiTomaso, author of the new book, The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism. They’re also based on privilege, she said — how it is shared, how opportunities are hoarded and how most white Americans think their career and economic advantages have been entirely earned, not passed down or parceled out.

    The way that whites, often unconsciously, hoard and distribute advantage inside their almost all white networks of family and friends is one of the driving reasons that in February just 6.8 percent of white workers remained unemployed while 13.8 percent of black workers and 9.6 percent of Hispanic workers were unable to find jobs, DiTomaso said.

  8. m&m says:

    They continue to make excuses and blame everyone else for their misfortunes. why don’t they join in and partcipate with the other race. They continue to seperate them selves.

  9. Perspective says:

    After watching the video, my thought was I wish they had asked the people who passed by the white actor why they just passed by. Perhaps the people passing by would’ve walked right past both actors because they didn’t want to get involved. Perhaps the crowd of people who gathered around the black actor would’ve done the same with the white “thief” because they do get involved – without race being the deciding factor! Perhaps they did it because it was the right thing to do, unlike the first group of people.

    Just a different perspective to think about!

  10. w.ryan says:

    Reading the replies from this thread obviously explain why these issues are revolving door with no exit! I don’t care who the messenger is or what color they are. Someone is putting the issue on the table. It also amazes me that White Americans have wielded the power in this country since the beginning suffering the native inhabitants with diseased blankets and mass killing and theft of property. And when Christianity finally stood on the right moral rock White America went to Jim Crow. All of these centuries of hatred, brutality and domination resulted an F-up mess and most of what I hear is Blacks can’t get there act together. The native Americans can’t get there act right either. This leaves me to believe that White America is the root cause. The so called Liberal Whites then and now shouldn’t be the only Americans that can reason or have empathy! Looking at the big picture, Guns, mass incarceration and high unemployment isn’t the plan of any persons of color. Heck, lets use marijuana as and example. A business minded black man that sells marijuana is a criminal and does felony time while a white man that sell it is an entrepreneur. Stop blaming the victim and work with us.

  11. Lancer says:

    Sherry Epley:

    Define “racism”, please.

  12. Old Floridian says:

    Teachers should not be required to discipline a student. They should only be their to teach the lesson, and follow the curriculum. They should place monitors in the classroom, just like they do on school buses, to observe and maintain the stability. If a student gets out of hand, let the monitor handle It. If the monitor is can not take care of it, then call SRO and escort the student off school property.

  13. David B. says:

    Maybe they should video tape classrooms.

  14. nomad says:

    “His goal: “We want to try to eliminate out of school suspension,” he said, at least for non -violent offenders, he qualified.”

    Well, I’m glad he is not against suspension for violent offenders, I hope.

    Where was this video taken? The bias could be in the location. Where I live, bicyclists are all white since my neighborhood is predominantly white. So yes, a black guy messing around with a bicycle is suspicious, prompting folks (notably white) to call the cops. I’m sure that a white guy caught messing around with a bicycle in a black neighborhood would be beaten up or shot to death – no calling the cops on him.

    The racism cuts both ways so its disingenuous for blacks to claim that only whites are racist.

    “Hardly anyone blinks an eye at the Rev. Al Sharpton’s racist statements, such as: “White folks was in the caves while we (blacks) was building empires. … We built pyramids before Donald Trump ever knew what architecture was. … We taught philosophy and astrology and mathematics before Socrates and them Greek homos ever got around to it.”

    Sharpton again: “So (if) some cracker come and tell you ‘Well, my mother and father blood go back to the Mayflower,’ you better hold your pocket. That ain’t nothing to be proud of. That means their forefathers was crooks.” Sharpton also offered, “If the Jews want to get it on, tell them to pin their yarmulkes back and come over to my house.”

    Despite such racism, President Barack Obama has made Sharpton his go-to guy on matters of race. But not to worry. Obama himself spent 20 years listening to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s anti-Semitic and racist sermons. The news media and intellectual elite don’t condemn Sharpton or Obama, because they have two standards of behavior: one for whites and a lower one for blacks.”

  15. Theodore says:

    What the public schools need to understand is that it is a cultural thing when it comes to dealing with black students especially our young black boys who are taught predominantly by middle age white women who don’t understand the nature or culture of our children and a system who could care less to even try to understand.we need to get our brothers and sisters who are laid off from these teaching jobs and create or own independent school that teaches Ebonics and our true cultural history.we must not be fooled there is no such thing as a drop out rate only a push out rate .at the end of the day if you reject any part of my culture you reject me ?so there you have it. the African American child’s natural cultural behavior is criminalized by a form of systematic control which has been instituted from the beginning without the input or thought of our culture and we are supposed to be a success in a platform not build for us or by us

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