The Flagler County School Board has reached a settlement in a three-year civil rights lawsuit that charged the district with unfair disciplinary practices toward black students and a regime of excessive suspensions or expulsions. The board in two weeks will sign off on the agreement with the Atlanta-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which filed the complaint in 2012 on behalf of three students “and all others similarly situated.”
“We have been working collaboratively to reach an agreement,” Kristy Gavin, the school board attorney, told the board Tuesday evening, “and if this agreement is reached by both parties, then they would end up withdrawing their complaint from OCR and that matter would be resolved.” OCR is the federal Office of Civil Rights. Absent unexpected objections, the board is expected to formally ratify the agreement at its June 16 meeting.
Until the agreement expires in June 2018, the district would be in something of a probationary period with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and responsible for fulfilling specific, ongoing requirements.
At the heart of the agreement is a new mission for an existing committee, called the Coalition for Student Success. That committee will be turned into something similar to a civilian review board that operates as a watchdog of some police agencies. Its 11 members, made up of parents, students, community members (at least one of whom represents the local chapter of the NAACP), the sheriff’s office, a mental health counselor and just one representative from the school district’s administrative staff, will meet at least quarterly and publicly to review disciplinary data and make recommendations to the superintendent regarding disciplinary policies. The agreement does not spell out who appoints the members of the committee.
The committee will have the authority to examine student disciplinary data, “provided that adequate safeguards are taken so as not to disclose confidential or personally identifiable information” protected by privacy laws. The committee is to meet for the first time no later than Sept. 15, and will have stricter public information requirements, such as disseminating notices of meetings two weeks ahead of such meetings. The panel will also be responsible for providing an annual report to the board. The agreement does not indicate to what extent the school district may or will provide staffing or financial support to the panel—often an Achilles’ heel of well-meaning efforts that rely exclusively on volunteers.
The agreement also calls for Superintendent Jacob Oliva to write an advisory letter spelling out the mission of school resource deputies. Oliva will write the letter in conjunction with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s attorneys. That section of the settlement makes a passing allusion to the “re-establishment of an alternative program,” suggesting that the district may at some point reopen an alternative school. That school was closed during the recent years’ budget crunch.
Other sections of the agreement are more routine, addressing—or re-addressing—disciplinary protocols such as the district’s Positive Behavior Support system, which strives to discipline students without removing them from the classroom. The wording of the agreement is tame, but its consequence may be far-reaching, as the Gavin explicitly spoke of the district’s intention to eliminate out-of-school suspensions entirely.
“We are also looking to hopefully one day to be able to say that suspension is no longer required,” Gavin said. “Currently this year we had a maximum of 10-day suspensions.” For that to be imposed, it required the approval of a central office administrator. Next year the maximum-suspension length will be lowered to seven days, and subsequently to five or fewer days. “Our goal is to always have our students in the classroom,” Gavin said. Out-of-school suspensions had been one of the most severely criticized aspects of the district’s disciplinary habits in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s original complaint.
The agreement also restates numerous practices the district is already carrying out regarding the Code of Conduct, its dissemination to parents and students and its annual revisions, training of faculty and staff, principals’ meetings with students, outreach with the community, and so on. (See the full agreement below.)
The district worked with the law center’s Amir Whitaker and Lisa Carmona, lawyers for the civil rights organization. Both were at the meeting Tuesday.
“I want to commend you along the great work that’s going on here in Flagler,” Whitaker said. “Since the very beginning I’ve expressed to the superintendent and to everyone I’ve worked with that I’m encountering things here and seeing things here that are not happening anywhere else, and seeing schools across three states, you have great leadership in Superintendent Oliva.” He stressed that approving the agreement was urgent, so that the district would not start another school year with the complaint pending. “It’s a continued commitment to a lot of the great ideas that have actually taken place here,” Whitaker continued, describing some seven or eight trips to the district to work through the agreements and the individual needs of schools, parents and students.
“We appreciate the agreement, I think it’s a collaborative, cooperative kind of agreement,” Colleen Conklin, who chairs the school board, said. “When we tend to shine the light on thing we tend to know what we’re working with, and work better to try to improve them.”
“We’re not in the business of just meeting compliance for a complaint,” Oliva, the superintendent, said. “We want to be a district that implements some of the most innovative practices in the nation, where you’re going to bring other districts to learn from us. So when we started this journey and sat down at the table, it was with that vision in mind, and some of the ideas that we’ve kicked around and some of the vision that we’re working on I think is pretty innovative, and it’s aligned with the school board’s vision and mission in being premier is what we stand for, whether that’s how we implement student support for our struggling students, dealing with discipline and graduation rates. We’re not afraid to try anything. We appreciate them coming to the table with that same mindset. It’s been a very powerful process and I’ve learned a lot and I’m grateful for that opportunity.”