The U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation into the “disproportionate discipline” of black students and students with disabilities at Pinellas County Schools.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a complaint in August after a food fight at R.L. Sanders School led to the arrest and pepper spraying of two students.
Law Center attorney Amir Whitaker said the school district has arrested over 4,000 students for disorderly conduct. Even though black males make up less than 10 percent of Pinellas County schools, they account for half of the arrests in the districts.
“The school that we’re talking about with our client, that day alone at least three students were arrested for disorderly conduct,” he said.
At R.L. Sanders, 93 percent of arrests are black males, according to their 58-page complaint.
Whitaker also said even though Miami has some of the most violent schools, according to the Florida Department of Education, they still have less disorderly conduct arrests.
“A student in Pinellas County Schools is over 20 times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct than a student in Miami-Dade County,” he said.
The complaint also said black students are “nearly four times more likely to be arrested than white students,” and that students with disabilities are “nearly three times more likely to be referred to law enforcement than students without disabilities.”
According to Whitaker, the food fight was between a male student and a female student. He said his two clients weren’t involved but were friends with the female student. They allegedly tried to break up the fight and that’s when a school resource officer arrested and pepper sprayed them.
“When we heard about the story it matched up with our data and what we had been seeing anyway so we were interested in moving forward with the complaint,” he said. “We noticed within the data that this wasn’t happening to all students, it was happening to African-American students and students with disabilities by far.”
He says the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights is requesting additional records from the Law Center and will then do site visits within the school district.
Until the investigation is complete, Whitaker said he’d like to see the school district take action.
“We just would like them to choose something that’s going to actually nurture and develop students as opposed to something that’s going to punish or traumatize.”
He suggested better monitoring of all incidents with police, increase evidence-based programs, no more mace and arrests would be a step in the right direction.
A statement from the school district said they are “aware of the Office for Civil Rights investigation and will fully cooperate to provide information requested.”