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SPLC attorney Amir Whitaker and School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin worked closely to create the agreement that ended the three-year-old civil rights complaint. (Photo by Jonathan Simmons.)
Palm Coast Wednesday, Jun. 17, 2015 5 years ago

Agreement ends complaint about disciplinary disparities

by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

A federal civil rights complaint filed against the Flagler County School District by the Southern Poverty Law Center three years ago about disciplinary disparities affecting the district’s black students ended Tuesday evening as the School Board voted unanimously to approve an agreement revising its policies.

The hearing on the agreement, including a presentation by School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin, lasted for only about 17 minutes.

“This is not an easy issue to address, and this is a problem that has existed before any of you were here,” SPLC Attorney Amir Whitaker, who helped draft the 2012 Department of Education Office for Civil Rights complaint, said at the June 16 School Board meeting. “So this is an opportunity to come together and do what we can about it, and I thank you for the opportunity.”

The civil rights complaint against Flagler Schools was one of five leveled against school district in Florida — the other districts were the Escambia, Bay, Okaloosa and Suwannee school districts — which charged that black students in those counties “were subjected to harsh disciplinary policies at a far higher rate than their white classmates” and “were often subjected to long-term suspensions, expulsions and even arrested at school for relatively minor misconduct,” removing them from the school environment and harming their education. In Flagler County, the complaint said, black students made up 31% percent of out-of-school suspensions during the 2010-11 school year, even though black students were 16% percent of the district’s student population.

Since Whitaker spoke at a local NAACP meeting in late January and toured local schools at the Flagler School district’s invitation, the civil rights group has worked closely with the district to come to an agreement. Its terms were laid out at a School Board meeting June 2:

The Coalition for Student Success — whose membership will consist of two community members, one Sheriff’s Office representative, two high school students, a licensed mental health counselor, a representative from the Department of Juvenile Justice, a member of the school district’s administrative staff, and Flagler Schools Superintendent Jacob Oliva — will be charged with reviewing the district’s code of conduct, and checking its discipline data for disparities.

The school district will provide monthly discipline reports, and make the data available to the SPLC and the public in general for review.

The policies for the District Discipline Review Committee will be clarified, and the length of out-of-school suspensions will drop from a maximum of 10 days to a maximum of five days, with a goal of reducing them to three days the following year and gradually eliminating them entirely.

The district will also issue an advisory letter stating that that school resource officers — the deputies assigned to schools — are there to assist with student growth, provide positive role models and keep students safe. And if either side doesn’t feel the other party is living up to its obligations, they will meet and undergo a formal mediation process, if necessary.

At the June 16 meeting, School Board Chairwoman Colleen Conklin thanked Whitaker for his months of work with the district to reach and agreement, and for driving from Alabama to attend the meeting.

“I want to strongly commend you for coming and working with the team and approaching the whole situation, I think, with an open mind and a willingness to collaborate,” she said to Whitaker at the meeting. “There are old wounds here, and there are some new wounds here in our district, and there is great hope that we move on and move forward, and the only way that you can do that is by establishing and building upon trust.”

There was minimal discussion of the agreement before the unanimous board vote, and only a few members of the public addressed the board about the agreement during the meeting’s public comment period, all of them in favor.

One was Flagler County NAACP President Linda Sharpe-Haywood, herself a former teacher and police officer.

“I’d like to commend the board for your willingness to sit down with us and with the Southern Poverty Law Center, and I applaud (Flagler Schools Superintendent) Mr. Oliva for his sincerity and his willingness to make compromises and to go forward with what our goal for Flagler County Schools would be if this is accepted the way that it has been submitted,” she said. “I think that it is a start. I think that it’s a very good start. It’s more than 50% of what I would have wanted, and I’m pleased with that. I just want to say thank you to the board for your consideration, and just many, many thanks to Dr. Whitaker and the Southern Poverty Law Center for assisting us.”

Whitaker, who’d worked closely with Gavin to reach the agreement, warned that change will take time.

“This is the beginning of addressing the issue, and we’ll have kinks to work out. Things won’t change overnight,” he said. “But the fact that you all are committed to addressing it and coming to the table, and having the community come to the table — because it takes a village — I think we’ll work wonders here. I just look forward to everything that will happen afterward.”

To read the agreement, click HERE


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