It’s been five months since the Southern Poverty Law Center filed its complaint against Flagler Schools, which said the district’s disciplinary procedures are harsher for black students than white students. A lot has happened since then.
For one, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation in late November into the complaint.
“This doesn’t happen very often,” said Stephanie Langer, a staff attorney at the SPLC. “It tells us the government sees substance to our complaint.”
In addition to that, the center has been inundated with more complaints from parents and students about their treatment in schools, Langer said. Much of her recent work has involved adding those cases to her files.
“Flagler’s an interesting county,” Langer said. “Because it’s so small, I think people were hesitant to speak out. But once people saw that we were serious and moving forward and trying to fix the problem, more people started coming forward.”
The SPLC filed its complaint against five school districts in Florida: Flagler, Bay, Escambia, Okaloosa and Suwannee. The complaint includes data and anecdotal accounts of students who say they were punished harshly for minor acts of misconduct, leading to a disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions for black students than for whites.
Langer said this is a problem throughout Florida, not one unique to the counties where complaints were filed. Flagler was selected because it was one of the worst, she said, citing an example she heard recently about a Flagler kindergarten student.
The student was not allowed to have sweets at school per his parent’s direction. His classroom had a system in place in which tokens were used in exchange for treats or privileges.
The student was discovered asking his students to give him their tokens so he could buy ice cream, Langer said. He was disciplined for attempted theft.
The case joined others in Langer’s file.
Also since the complaint was filed, a settlement was reached in a similar case in Oakland, Calif, in which the school district developed a plan for dealing with disparity in disciplinary actions. Langer said she hopes that settlement could act as an example for Florida schools.
And finally, Sen. Dick Durbin is chairing a hearing Wednesday on school-to-prison pipelines before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.
The school-to-prison pipeline is central to the SPLC’s complaint. The term refers to the pattern of students being pushed out of schools and into the juvenile justice system by enacting harsh discipline, including in-school arrests for nonviolent infractions.
“What the SPLC found is that (black) kids are being arrested in schools, more often and for less serious crimes than their white counterparts,” Langer said.
Florida is known for its high rate of youth incarceration. It’s the only state that has sentenced juveniles to life in prison without parole for burglary or carjacking. Of those life sentences, 84% are given to black youths, according to the Public Interest Law Center at Florida State University.
Between the presence of police in schools and policies that are quick to issue suspensions, Langer said, students can become disenchanted with school or law enforcement, leading to dropouts and criminal activity.
“We aren’t saying that kids who act out shouldn’t be punished,” Langer said. “But we need to rethink how (it’s done).”
Her words echo sentiments brought before the Flagler County School Board Tuesday.
Linda Haywood, president of the Flagler County NAACP spoke on behalf of a 13-year-old student who was suspended for defending herself in a fight. The student had no disciplinary history. She was suspended in accordance with the district’s no-tolerance policy for fighting.
The student’s parents had been trying to contact school administrators for days to speak about the child’s discipline, Haywood said. They haven’t heard back.
This breakdown of communication between educators and families leads to problems, Haywood said. Another parent voiced similar concerns.
School Board member Colleen Conklin said this was the first she’d heard of the issue. The board resolved to look into it, and Conklin urged parents having a problem communicating with their schools to call board members.
“I absolutely agree with you,” she said. “We need to have the conversation.”
For the SPLC, issues like this are precisely why the complaint against Flagler was filed. They want to see the system scrutinized.
“We’re criminalizing kids for being kids,” Langer said. We’re arresting them for classroom discipline issues. We just want schools to look again at their discipline policies.”
Currently 4 Responses
- As a current student of Flagler Palm Coast, I can say that racism is a major issue. When a student of COLOR steps into school they're put in the category of ghetto/trouble maker. As for the white students are the angels and can do no wrong. Dress code is another issue that also has to do with color because white students don't tend to get in trouble like students of color.
- It's not the schools, its the parents. All races, ethnicities, and backgrounds. Please parents, teach personal responsibility for you AND your children. Stop blaming and start cleaning up your act. Sit down with your children for one hour each night and study. Until parents start taking accountability for their children's upbringing, we can't blame discipline issues on the school system. In comment #2 above, please see an educator immediately for language arts instruction.
- As I open up the Palm Coast Observer, the headline reads, "Feds investigating discipline in Flager Schools", I feel I need to respond, mainly because of the false impression it gives our community about our school.
I have worked at FPCHS for almost eight years. I have no problem telling you what a great campus FPC is, from our students to our faculty and staff.
Over the years I have seen so many positive programs instituted at school to help our students succeed and prepare them for the next phase in life, whether it is college, a tech school, the military or straight to the work force. Every level of learning ability a student may have, there is a program in place to help that student achieve their goal. The school offers free tutoring, free daycare for students with babies so that student can go on with their studies and graduate. We have a mediation program in place to try and work out problems students may have with each other or with a teacher. There is a graduation coach who works with students and parents to help keep a student on track to graduate, also teachers who are more than willing to go that extra step for students. There is also an outside group of men and women who come in and mentor students so they hopefully can benefit from their guidance and life experience.
We have over 2400 students at FPC. With that many students, everything is not going to be rosy all the time. At FPC we have three deans working with our students. Never in my time at FPC have I heard or witnessed a dean single out a student for a harsher consequence for their actions based on race. And to insinuate this, is extremely unfair to these individuals who have a very demanding and at times, frustrating job.
Out of our 2400 students, 98% are good kids trying to figure things out. Not to say they might have a few bumps over four years, but nothing too serious. That leaves us with 2% who are there for the wrong reason. No matter how many interventions or programs in place to help them succeed, this group will not take that step to help themselves. This 2% can at times make a very stressful environment not just for the staff, but also for the whole student body. When a student is dealt with in the dean's office he/she didn't end up there because of his/her race. He/she is there because of their actions. There are guidelines that the dean's office follows to assure all students and their actions, are dealt with fairly. Yet groups such as the Southern Poverty Law center and local NAACP want to make charges of disparity in our disciplinary process, in regards to minority students, are way off base. Another statement that has been made a few times is "the school to prison pipeline". Allegedly, the schools are pushing students out of school and into the juvenile justice system. Students end up being put out of school because all other avenues have been exhausted. Our schools cannot be expected to be parents, along with being educators. Schools are not part of the "pipeline to prison charge". I would lay that blame where it belongs, at the students home. Parents send their kids to school without teaching the basic skills of respect and discipline, then expect the school to do that job also. Our school is ever evolving, always trying new methods to help our student body succeed. A message was given by our president a couple of years ago when he addressed the students of America. He basically stated, "You may not come from the best home life or circumstances but that does not give you the right to be disrespectful or not learn at school". It would be nice if the schools could count on the parents and outside groups to help with that message, and not be so quick to jump on the bandwagon to address a problem that does not exist.
- I believe this is very accurate even since the early 2000's. Espeiaclly at fpc where i attended, and i personally had to use better judgement to drop out of school. I fine the policies in place protected the white folks more than anyone other than themselves. The police officer at the time had his hands dipped in everyones pocket; therefore, if a minority wasnt on a club, sports, solastics he would have enough creative writing to create jeoporady on the individual with either in school supension or explusion. I think they ought to evaluate the system and protocol and make such an example of the district that it never happens again. Nevertheless, go back through all the files of people who have attended that school and give them a relief payment for their actions.
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