Claiming that black and disabled students are disproportionately arrested and restrained, the Southern Poverty Law Center has filed a federal civil rights complaint against the Pinellas County School System.
The suit asks that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights and the U.S. Department of Justice investigate and compel Pinellas County Schools to revise its arrest policies and practices.
The SPLC also wants the OCR and DOJ to restrict the use of chemical weapons on students; eliminate arrests for disorderly conduct; increase alternative, evidence-based programs to reduce arrests and address disproportionality; train school-based officers on bias education and adolescent development; and better track and monitor all police-involved incidents on school campuses.
The SPLC is a Montgomery, AL-based civil rights organization.
Pinellas School Superintendent Michael Grego declined comment until he has a chance to study the allegations in depth.
But, the district sent out a statement Wednesday about the suit:
“The Southern Poverty Law Center filed their complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The Pinellas County Schools Legal office received a copy today. The complaint will be reviewed, and all applicable information will be provided to the DOJ and/or OCR as requested.
“The district welcomes the opportunity to review existing practices and determine if there are additional best practices that can be implemented to continue the significant reduction in student arrests.”
The 58-page lawsuit, filed on behalf of all disabled and black students, stems from an incident at Richard L. Sanders School in Pinellas Park. The school is designed for students in kindergarten through the 12th grade who have learning and other disabilities.
According to the lawsuit, two Sanders students, identified as “PP” and “HF” were “honor roll students who were arrested [earlier this year] after defending a female student who was attacked by a male student in the in the school cafeteria. Both P.P. and H.F. were arrested, and a School Resource Officer (SRO) used the chemical weapon and restraint known as ‘pepper spray’ on H.F., temporarily blinding him.”
Both students were accused of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor. The charges were dismissed, the complaint says, but “both students now have a criminal arrest record because of a school lunchroom fight.”
The incident, the suit alleges, is only one example of a much larger systemic problem: “While blacks make up only 19 percent of [the Pinellas County School System’s] students, they are subjected to 59 percent of all school arrests, and are nearly four times more likely to be arrested than white students. Students with disabilities are nearly three times more likely to be referred to law enforcement than students without disabilities.”
“Pinellas County Schools delegates student discipline to law enforcement when it comes to marginalized students,” said Amir Whitaker, SPLC attorney. “The police practices endanger the lives and futures of students by subjecting them to excessive force and saddling them with criminal records for adolescent misbehavior. We’re urging the federal government to take action to protect students.”
Students were arrested more than 3,800 times in the five school years from 2010 to 2015, the SPLC says.
In June 2014, PCS entered an interagency agreement with law enforcement agencies to encourage fewer law enforcement referrals. Even so, during the following school year, 72 percent of Florida school districts arrested students less frequently than PCS, the complaint says.
The likelihood of some students being arrested for disorderly conduct, the most common charge, also increased after PCS’s 2014 agreement. A total of 939 arrests for the offense occurred between 2010 and 2015. The charge is typically given for school fights that don’t result in serious injury. Pinellas students are more than 20 times as likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct as students in Miami-Dade Public Schools, the district reporting the most fights reported in the state, according to the SPLC.
While black students represent about 19 percent of Pinellas students, the SPLC says they made up nearly 60 percent of all school-based arrests, and 71 percent of PCS’s disorderly conduct arrests in 2014-15. In at least 19 schools, at least 80 percent of students arrested were black.
The disparity is even greater at Richard L. Sanders, the SPLC says. During the 2014-15 school year, the school had one of the highest arrest rates in Florida – a rate that was 58 times the state average. Black students made up 93 percent of the arrests.
But the district responded with its own set of data in its statement::
— “The number of student arrests in Pinellas dropped from 767 in 2012-2013 to 482 in the 2015-2016 school year, a 37 percent reduction.
— “In regards to use of pepper spray, Pinellas County Schools Police had nine incidents involving pepper spray in the 2015-2016 school year. A total of 16 students out of the 102,000 students in Pinellas were involved in these nine incidents.
— “The school referenced in the complaint, Richard L. Sanders School, serves students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. The staff members serving these students receive training on a continual basis on how to best meet the educational and social/behavioral needs of these students.
— “The work to reduce arrests will continue through collaboration with the local law enforcement agencies that serve Pinellas schools. The supervisors of all School Resource Officers from the eight law enforcement agencies serving schools meet regularly to review collaborative efforts underway to improve student relationships and reduce arrests.
— “Pinellas County ranked second in Florida among large counties for the use of civil citations as an alternative to arrest.
— “In regards to improvements in school discipline, the number of unique students suspended decreased by 25.3 percent from the 2014-2015 school year to the 2015-2016 school year. During that same time period, there was a 13.2 percent decrease in out of school suspensions issued to African American students.
— “The district participated in a national conference on discipline hosted by the White House in 2015. Resources were immediately incorporated into a yearlong training for principals on research-based strategies to improve school climates and reduce discipline disparities. All Assistant Principals are participating in the same training this school year. In 2016, the district participated in a restorative practices training and administrators are committed to embedding the use of restorative practices districtwide.”