POLITICS
08/31/2016 05:55 pm ET

In This Florida District, Black Students Are Punished Far More Harshly Than White Students

It's the school-to-prison pipeline in action.

Kids who attend Richard L. Sanders School in Pinellas County are 58 times more likely to be arrested at school than the average Florida student. It’s almost as if the school is “preparing the students for jail,” one student says in a civil rights complaint the Southern Poverty Law Center filed with the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice on Wednesday. 

H.F. was recently arrested at the K-12 school for students with disabilities. A male student hit H.F. while he was trying to break up a fight, and the pair ended up on the ground. When a school-based police officer came to the scene, he sat on top of H.F. and pepper-sprayed the student in the eyes, according to the complaint. 

P.P., who is also named in the complaint, tried to intervene in the altercation as well. He disengaged within a few minutes and stood calmly to the side, but a school-based police officer still handcuffed him.

Like H.F., P.P. was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct.

This exemplifies the widespread disparities in discipline within the Pinellas County Schools district, the complaint says. It alleges that the district criminalizes students for schoolyard misbehaviors and pushes them into the criminal justice system, and that it disproportionately subjects black students and students with disabilities to arrests and chemical weapons like pepper spray. 

Black students who attend schools in Pinellas County receive extreme consequences, even for minor misbehaviors. In the 2014-15 school year, black students constituted nearly 60 percent of all school-based arrests, despite only making up 19 percent of district enrollment. And students with disabilities ― some of the district’s most vulnerable kids ― are three times more likely to get referred to law enforcement than students without disabilities, according to the most recent available data. 

The tactics they’re using on children mirror tactics police use on the street. They’re pepper-spraying children as young as middle school. SPLC attorney Amir Whitaker

The pattern creates a school-to-prison pipeline, whereby students of color and students with disabilities are disproportionately suspended, expelled and arrested.

This school-to-prison pipeline is visible on a national scale. Students of color are more likely to have police based in their schools and be arrested. An arrest can have a dire impact on a student’s life, making it more difficult for them to finish school, go on to receive higher education or get a job. 

Last year, the Tampa Bay Times published a Pulitzer Prize-winning series outlining how Pinellas County schools had failed to educate children. The U.S. Department of Education responded by opening a complaint into whether the district discriminates against black students. The district has since launched a number of reforms to improve schools.

SPLC attorney Amir Whitaker noted that the new complaint highlights only the latest examples of egregious punishment in the district. 

“School resource officers are very common throughout the district, there’s probably upwards of 13 law enforcement agencies within the district and [the district] also operates their own police force,” Whitaker told The Huffington Post. “The tactics they’re using on children mirror tactics police use on the street. They’re pepper-spraying children as young as middle school.”

Lisa Wolf, public information officer for Pinellas County Schools, responded to the SPLC’s complaint by saying the district “welcomes the opportunity to review existing practices.” 

The number of arrests and suspensions in the district have declined precipitously over the past several years, she said, addubg that only 16 of the district’s 102,000 students were pepper-sprayed during the 2015-16 school year. Principals received training on how to reduce school discipline disparities during the year, and assistant principals are set to receive similar training this year.

The school highlighted in the complaint, Richard L. Sanders, “serves students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders,” Wolf told HuffPost in an email. “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.”

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Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips? Email Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com.

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