The Southern Poverty Law Center has filed five complaints with the U.S. Department of
Education’s Office of Civil Rights regarding racially discriminatory disciplinarian practices in Florida schools. The organization detailed the complaints during a press conference held in front of the federal courthouse in Escambia County.
“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 SPLC.
The five complaints contend that African-American students in the Escambia, Bay, Okaloosa, Flagler and Suwannee county school districts are suspended, expelled and arrested at school for minor infractions. The SPLC attorney said that African-American students are punished “more harshly and frequently.”
“What we are asking the Office of Civil Rights to do is to bring the African-American community to the table and let them participate in the process,” said Langer.
Later, in a teleconference, Langer explained to the national media why the SPLC had filed its complaints. She told a reporter with the New York Times that the organization had been contacted by parents in the northern Florida districts and that “what we found was shocking.”
Langer also noted that it was the SPLC’s position that discriminatory practices were pervasive throughout the state.
“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 … he was on the wrong side of the cafeteria.”
Of the five complains filed by the SPLC, two have been opened by the DOE. 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.
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