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Friday April 18th 2014

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SPLC Eyes Escambia

Discrimination in Discipline?
By Jeremy Morrison

The three-ring binder was brimming with papers: report cards, letters to and from school administrators, complaints filed with the U.S. Department of Education. Black hands carefully leafed through the compilation, pulling out pages of interests.

“They was always writing him up,” the man said. “They was always writing him up for his behavior.”

Jim Solsberry has a nephew in the Escambia County School District. For the past couple of years, he has battled Booker T. Washington High School over what he believes to be undue disciplinary actions against the student.

The uncle contends that the school routinely suspends his nephew—a physically impaired African American student—rather than provide him with an adequate education.

“He would be at home more than he would be at school,” Solsberry said. “Until I brought in the civil rights people.”

For what he considers to be discriminatory disciplinary actions, the man has filed four complaints against the school. Two have been resolved via early resolution, while the others are ongoing.

Last week, Solsberry learned that he was not alone in his appeals to the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights. The man was surprised when he turned on the television to see that the Southern Poverty Law Center had filed a complaint against Escambia.

“I didn’t even know anything about ’em,” Solsberry said.

The Southern Poverty Law Center is a nonprofit civil rights organization based in Montgomery, Ala. It was founded in 1971.

During a press conference in front of the federal courthouse in downtown Pensacola, the SPLC announced five complaints regarding racially discriminatory disciplinary practices. The complaints are directed at five different Florida school districts: Escambia, Bay, Okaloosa, Flagler and Suwannee.

“These discriminatory practices are simply so pervasive that we’ve asked the Department of Education to step in,” said Stephanie Langer, a staff attorney with the law center.

The SPLC is basing the complaints on disciplinary data provided by the school districts. The group argues it shows that African American students are punished “more harshly and frequently” than their non-black counterparts.

According to the law center, nearly 20 percent of African-Americans in Escambia receive at least one out-of-school suspension, compared to six percent of white students. In Okaloosa, the complaint states that 50 percent of campus arrests pertain to blacks, while the group only makes up 12 percent of the student body.

“The statistics speak for themselves,” Langer told the local press.

The attorney described a system in which African-American students were much more likely to get disciplined for minor infractions. These students subsequently, she said, struggled academically (missed classes) and in society (arrest record).

“This is the kind of stuff that pushes African-American students out of the system,” Langer told a huddle of evening news cameras after the announcement.

“These are some pretty serious accusations,” said the guy from channel five.

“Absolutely, and we take them seriously,” Langer told him.

None of this was a surprise to Elvin McCorvey, head of the local chapter of the NAACP and a former school district administrator. He had raised such issues during his time as the district’s equal employment officer.

“I brought all this to the attention of the superintendent’s office,” McCorvey said.

The former administrator said he feels local African-American students have long endured the scene laid out in the SPLC complaints. He too connected dots between the discipline disparity and the high dropout rates among blacks in the area.

“Students are encouraged to drop out of school,” he said. “The treatment makes you feel unwelcome.”

Escambia County School Superintendent Malcolm Thomas took issue with the complaint and said the district’s response was still being formulated. He said the district has curbed its suspension and expulsion numbers, and cited “progress” in areas addressed by the complaint.

“When they take a look at our trend line they’re going to see a trend line that is better than many schools in this country,” said Thomas.

The superintendent said the lower numbers were not achieved by realigning behavioral standards, but rather by dropping the zero-tolerance policy and giving teachers “more options in their tool box to deal with behavior.”

Thompson conceded there could be room for improvement, but said he felt confident the SPLC would soon learn that Escambia was not running afoul.

“I’m not sure they took a careful enough look at all the information,” the superintendent said. “I think when they take a look at what we’re doing they’re going to see something that they’ll want to use as a model.”

McCorvey disagreed. He sees disparity in discipline as an ongoing issue. The NAACP official said the district needed to take a different attitude.

“I never had a child I could not manage. It all started with respect for the students,” he said. “They need to change the attitude in the district, the whole thing starts with attitude—the attitude of the adults.”

A couple of hours after the press conference in Pensacola, the SPLC conducted a teleconference with the national press. Langer explained to a reporter with the New York Times that parents in the northern Florida districts had contacted the organization and that “what we found was shocking.”

She said Florida overall appeared to have a problem. But resources and logistics dictated they limit the complaints to the five districts.

“What’s happening throughout the state, they’re criminalizing children for being children?” she said.

“Are these folks racists, or what’s happening?” asked a woman from the Chicago Tribune.

The reporter wanted to be sure the African-American students weren’t in fact being disciplined or arrested for issues such as guns or drugs. Langer said the disciplines were most often associated with infractions such as “trespass” or “disorderly conduct.”

“We’re not talking about drugs, we’re not talking about violent crime, we’re not talking about weapons charges,” the attorney said. “… I’ll give you an example, in Escambia County we had a kid who was arrested for trespassing because he went to school to get a hot meal.”

Of the five complaints filed by the SPLC, the DOE has opened two. The department is currently looking at Escambia and Suwannee, with the other three complaints under review.

Langer explained that the group filed complaints with the DOE, as opposed to filing a lawsuit, because it hoped to work with the school districts.

“We’re hoping to bring people to the table who can make a difference,” she said.

McCorvey, who described the school district as being in denial, said he hopes the SPLC complaints shine light on what he views as a pervasive issue. He’s hopeful the complaints will spur the school district into changing.

“I think it’s going to force the district to take a look at what they’re doing because now they’re under the gun,” McCorvey said, estimating the process may take a couple of years. “It’s gonna have to bring results because if not there’s going to be a lawsuit—someone is going to pay.”