Racial Discrimination in Florida Schools: Complaints Filed Against North Florida Districts Outline Systemic Discrimination Against African-American Students

MIAMI – The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) announced today that it has filed a series of civil rights complaints against Florida school districts that subject African-American students to harsh disciplinary policies at rates that are far higher than for white students.

The complaints, filed with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, describe how African-American students in the school districts in Escambia, Bay, Okaloosa, Flagler and Suwannee counties are suspended, expelled and arrested at school for relatively minor and non-violent conduct.

“Unforgiving disciplinary policies are cutting short the futures of countless African-American students across Florida and the entire nation,” said Stephanie Langer, a staff attorney for the SPLC’s Florida office. “If school districts truly want to provide a quality education to all of their students, they will reform these discriminatory policies.”

The school districts’ own annual reports to the Florida Department of Education demonstrate the discriminatory impact of their disciplinary policies:

• In Escambia county schools, African-American students account for 65 percent of all out-of-school suspensions, but they represent only 36 percent of the student population.

The complaints explain how the school districts have imposed long-term suspensions on children as young as 8 years old for minor rule infractions such as tardiness, inappropriate cell phone usage, talking in class and dress code violations.

The complaints also describe how the school districts fail to provide school principals with specific disciplinary guidelines and procedures. This grants principals the power to remove students from school for vague and often minor rule infractions.
Several cases described in the complaint illustrate how African-American children are punished more harshly and more frequently than white students:

•  M.C., an African-American student in Escambia County, was suspended and arrested for “trespassing” after purchasing a hot meal at a neighboring high school. Before this incident, M.C. had no history of discipline issues.

“Local school districts and state officials must make reforms that improve the effectiveness of school disciplinary policies without forcing children out of the classroom,” said Tania Galloni, managing attorney of the SPLC’s Florida office. “School discipline should never deprive a child of an education, but that is happening in these school districts. What was once considered minor misconduct has become an opportunity to punish or even criminalize a student’s behavior.”

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