Complaint: Okaloosa schools discriminate against Black students
By Altura Ct.
The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a federal complaint against the Okaloosa County School District, alleging disciplinary discrimination toward Black students.
The 22-page document asserts that in the 2010-11 school year, Black students accounted for about 47 percent of all in- and out-of-school suspensions, although they made up only 12 percent of the school district’s population.
The civil rights organization filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights after more than a year of investigation.
“It started with complaints that we received from parents in the Panhandle. We were just hearing all these stories and we were like, ‘What? Not in this day and age,’ ” said Stephanie Langer, the staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Florida office. “We were surprised and shocked with what we found.”
After studying school districts across the state, the organization decided to file complaints against the Okaloosa, Bay, Escambia, Flagler and Suwannee County school districts. The first complaint was filed in February and concluded last month with accusations filed against Okaloosa County.
Investigations have been launched in Escambia and Suwannee counties based on the complaint, Langer said.
“I think we have enough evidence to file in all 67 districts in Florida,” she said. “What we found were these five counties were very representative of what was happening in the state.”
Okaloosa’s complaint specifically cites experiences of four students who are identified by only their initials and ages. Two attended Riverside Elementary School in Crestview and one attended Fort Walton Beach High School. The fourth attended Okaloosa Academy Charter School in Fort Walton Beach, which is overseen by the Rader Group.
Okaloosa’s complaint also criticized the school district’s site-based management pro-gram, which leaves most discipline issues in the hands of principals. Only expulsions are handled at the district level.
The trouble with that practice and the district’s overall discipline approach, Langer said, is that schools are punishing students for misdemeanor offenses the same way they do violent ones.
“We think it’s a problem with schools criminalizing kids for being kids,” she said.
Superintendent of Schools Alexis Tibbetts said her staff received the complaint Monday and had only just begun investigating the allegations.
“It’s safe to say we’re reviewing the data to see if it’s valid or not,” Tibbetts said.
Tibbetts was able to confirm that the district did have a 12 percent population of Black students in 2010-11, but couldn’t confirm the other numbers.
She said the percentages could change based on the number of times a single behavioral incident was reported.
Tibbetts also defended the district’s site-based management program. She said it was truly the best option not only because of staffing shortages at the district level, but because principals can keep up with individual student discipline is-sues more easily.
She did emphasize that similar policies were in place at each school.
“We have a consistent expectation for behavior in our school district, and that is regardless of the color of your skin or gender or any other attribute,” she said.
Tibbetts said no one with the federal education department had contacted her as of Tuesday afternoon.