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Advocates Allege Harsher Discipline for Black Students in Five Fla. Districts

from guest blogger Lesli A. Maxwell:

The Southern Poverty Law Center today said that it has filed complaints with federal civil rights officials against five Florida school districts it says are subjecting African-American students to harsh disciplinary practices at rates that far exceed those for white students.

Stephanie Langer, a staff attorney with SPLC's Florida office, said that the group has filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights against the school systems in Bay, Escambia, Flagler, Okaloosa, and Suwannee counties. The complaints claim that black students—who do not constitute a majority in any of the five counties—represent a disproportionate number of students who are suspended, expelled, placed in alternative settings, and arrested at school.

SPLC cites out-of-school suspension data for African-American students that were provided by each of the school districts to the Florida Department of Education in their annual reports for the 2009-10 school year:

• In Escambia, black students accounted for 65 percent of suspensions, but comprised 36 percent of the student population;
• In Okaloosa, African-American students accounted for 24 percent of suspensions, but comprised 12 percent of the population;
• In Bay, black students made up 30 percent of suspensions, but were 15 percent of the population;
• In Suwannee, black students accounted for 31 percent of suspensions, but represented 14 percent of the enrollment; and
• In Flagler, African-American students were 31 percent of suspensions, but comprised 16 percent of enrollment.

Malcolm Thomas, the superintendent of the Escambia school system, said the district has worked very deliberately to drive down out-of-school suspension rates and has reduced them by 50 percent in the last few years. A key to that, he said, has been the institution of an in-school suspension program, as well as an "in lieu of expulsion" program that places students who might have otherwise been kicked out of school on a long-term basis into a program to directly address their problem behaviors.

He said the district no longer uses zero tolerance policies and would not, for example, suspend a kid out of school for violating the district's cell phone policy.

"We want our kids to be in school learning and we do what we can to get them back on track," he said in an interview. "This is a priority for us, but at the same time, we do have a high expectation for behavior for all of our students."

Mr. Thomas said he'd had no contact with SPLC to directly address their concerns. He did, however, say that officials with the Education Department's office for civil rights had sent a letter last week requesting information related to the SPLC complaint.

"We are responding now to what they are asking for," he said.

The center announced its complaints about these districts on the same day that researchers from UCLA released a national analysis showing that one in six black students was suspended at least one time during the 2009-10 school year, based on federal education data.

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