The Flagler County School Board this evening voted 5-0 to ratify an agreement with the Southern Poverty Law Center that seeks to eliminate racial disparities in school discipline, resolving a federal civil rights complaint the center filed three years ago.
The board had essentially approved the agreement on June 3, but went through the formality of voting on it tonight.
Under the agreement, district approval will be required for suspensions of five or more days this coming school year, and for three or more days in the next school year, as the district attempts to phase out out-of-school suspensions entirely. The district will consider abolishing suspensions once an alternative school program is created. The district closed its alternative school during the recession, as a cost-saving measure. The school district and law enforcement also will work to reduce in-school arrests for minor offenses.
As a result, the SPLC will withdraw the complaint it filed with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in 2012. That complaint – one of five filed against Florida school districts that year – described discriminatory policies that resulted in black students accounting for 31 percent of all out-of-school suspensions during the 2010-11 school year even though they were only 16 percent of the student population. Flagler County is the first of the five districts to resolve an SPLC civil rights complaint.
“This is a great day for students and families in Flagler County,” said Amir Whitaker, the SPLC staff attorney who’s made numerous trips to Flagler County and worked with local administrators to resolve the issue. He was at the board meeting tonight. “The Flagler County School Board has demonstrated with this agreement that it is committed to ensuring that no student is needlessly pushed out of school. We are excited to work with the schools and the district to introduce these new policies and improve education for Flagler’s 13,000 students.”
Schools are encouraged to consider alternatives to suspension and other harsh punishment under the agreement. Alternatives include peer mediation and an innovative restorative justice program. An existing committee that includes community members will be used to monitor discipline data and make recommendations to the district. It will hold quarterly public meetings to address district policies.
“Flagler County School District strives to be the premier learning organization,” said Kristy Gavin, school board attorney, in a news release issued by the law center. “Through our collaboration with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the changes that will be implemented will help the district in reaching this goal. Through outreach to community partners, like the Southern Poverty Law Center, we will continue to move in a positive direction to ensure a safe learning environment empowering students to reach their full potential in Flagler County.”
Other provisions of the agreement include a continuation of the schools providing informational programs about the district’s code of conduct and discipline to all students; and adding information programs to apprise families on the district’s code of conduct and expectations for all students. Regular discipline reports will also be made available to the community. School personnel will receive cultural competency and implicit bias training as well.
The SPLC is still pursuing federal civil rights complaints in Escambia, Bay, Okaloosa and Suwannee county school districts.