Black students in five Florida school districts may have faced harsher disciplinary actions than their white peers.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Birmingham, Alabama, filed a series of civil rights complaints this week with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The complaints allege that five county school districts suspended, expelled, and arrested black students for minor and nonviolent conduct.
Long-term suspensions have often been given to students as young as eight years old for slight infractions such as tardiness, talking in class, and dress code violations in five county school districts. Four of the counties cited in the complaints are in northern Florida, and one is on the state’s east coast. Whites are in the majority in all five counties.
One complaint involves an 11-year-old black student who, when caught with a cellphone in class, received a five-day suspension for the “inappropriate behavior.”
One student, with no prior infractions, was suspended and arrested for “trespassing” after buying a hot meal at a neighboring high school.
“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 SPLC’s Florida office in a release. “If school districts truly want to provide a quality education to all of their students, they will reform these discriminatory policies.”
The SPLC investigated the cases after parents called the center. School district officials told local media they are currently gathering documents and examining the allegations.
The complaints call for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to investigate the claims, and for the school districts to create corrective plans to ensure compliance with Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The districts’ reports to the Florida Department of Education show possible discrimination, according to the SPLC. For example, in Escambia county schools, black students represent 36 percent of the student population. But black students account for 65 percent of all out-of-school suspensions.
The SPCL reports that in Escambia schools, 20 percent of African-American students received at least one out-of-school suspension. Less than 6 percent of white students received one.
The statistics are similar for the other districts—all of which receive federal funding and are subjected to antidiscrimination prohibitions of Title VI.
In 2009, the Florida legislature amended its zero-tolerance discipline law to curb these types of extreme punishment.
The Florida Department of Education website states: “The Legislature finds that zero-tolerance policies are not intended to be rigorously applied to petty acts of misconduct and misdemeanors, including, but not limited to, minor fights or disturbances. The Legislature finds that zero-tolerance policies must apply equally to all students regardless of their economic status, race, or disability.”
Schools were directed to rewrite their policies to include milder punishment alternatives. But a new policy doesn't mean a clear one.
The complaints state that these five school districts have “vague and ambiguous disciplinary procedures” that are “hostile to African American children and deprives those students of equal access to educational benefits and opportunities.”
The vagueness ranges from terms such as “disrespect,” “rude,” and “serious” acts of misconduct. Yet, these terms are not defined in published school materials.
“School discipline should never deprive a child of an education, but that is happening in these school districts,” said Tania Galloni, managing attorney of the SPLC’s Florida office in a statement. “What was once considered minor misconduct has become an opportunity to punish or even criminalize a student’s behavior.”
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