Mission accomplished for Flagler students, NAACP
Dr. Amir Whitaker, who spearheaded a complaint against the district for racial disparities in school discipline, will speak at the Aug. 29 Freedom Fund Banquet in Palm Coast.
BY PENNY DICKERSON
The Flagler County NAACP annual Freedom Fund Banquet will be celebrated on Aug. 29 with a heightened triumph, thanks to its scheduled keynote speaker Dr. Amir Whitaker, attorney and educator for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).
A civil rights and education stalwart, Whitaker spearheaded a federal civil rights complaint that led to a recent settlement between the SPLC and Flagler County School Board aimed at ending racially discriminatory school discipline directed toward Black students, which includes excessive suspensions or expulsions.
The class-action victory was reached in June following a three-year battle that began in 2012 when the Montgomery, Ala.-based organization filed a formal complaint on behalf of three African-American students and a same-race populous of others whose education and civil rights were similarly affected.
Disparity in suspensions
Flagler County is one of five Florida school districts the SPLC filed complaints against and the first to resolve its case. The most egregious disciplinary habit alleged in the SPLC’s initial 22-page complaint was out-of-school suspensions.
African-American students in the district accounted for 31 percent of all out-of-school suspensions during the 2010-11 school year even though they were only 16 percent of the student population.
“The state of Florida is No. 1 out of the 50 states when it comes to suspending students and telling them to go home and stay out of school…,” stated Whitaker who entered the juvenile justice system at age 15 and went on to successfully earn five college degrees, including a juris doctorate from the Miami School of Law and master’s and doctorate in educational psychology from the University of Southern California.
“This is a great day for families in Flagler County,” stated Whitaker in June. “The Flagler County School Board has demonstrated with this agreement that it is committed to ensuring that no student is needlessly pushed out of school. We are excited to work with the schools and the district to introduce these new policies and improve education for Flagler’s 13,000 students.’’
The Hammock Beach Resort at 200 Ocean Crest Drive in Palm Coast will host the NAACP and guests beginning at 6 p.m. The Community Service Award will be presented to the Rev. Edwin Coffie, pastor, Mt. Calvary Baptist Church. Music will be provided by Darnel Butler & Xpression.
Florida’s Jim Crow past
Florida’s history and tourism boasts St. Augustine as the nation’s oldest city, but less than one hour away is neighboring Flagler County, the last county in the state to desegregate its schools.
The state’s failure to invoke haste continues to plague the district’s educational status. It further aligns with the varied discrimination and biases against disenfranchised groups that the SPLC has fought against since its founding in 1971.
According to the SPLC website, “Our lawsuits have toppled institutional racism and stamped out remnants of Jim Crow segregation; destroyed some of the nation’s most violent white supremacist groups; and protected the civil rights of children, women, the disabled, immigrants and migrant workers, the LGBT community, prisoners, and many others who faced discrimination, abuse or exploitation.
Whitaker amplifies that inherited issues have been carried over from history and because Florida is a former Jim Crow state. “There were two separate school systems here in Flagler…” he said, “and if you look at student outcomes today, you still see two separate stories, and we are trying to address that to where all students are achieving at the same level.”
“Flagler is one of 67 counties in Florida that is still under what is called a ‘court jurisdiction order,’ Whitaker asserts. “The United States Department of Justice came into Flagler in the 1970s to investigate school desegregation,’ he added.
Blacks statistically behind
Flagler County has been an A rated school district for four straight years (until its fall to B last year) and ranks No. 12 of 67 counties, an indicator based upon the FCAT scores.
However, Black students still defy the nostalgic W.E.B. Du Bois formula that the public educational school system is supposed to nurture and showcase “The Talented Tenth,” where talented, educated Blacks lead and elevate the masses.
The White male FCAT reading passage is 62 percent vs. 26 percent for Black students.
Not a single Black student was enrolled in an Advanced Placement science class in 2009-10, and just 35 Black students took AP classes at all.
In the entire district, just 12 Black students were enrolled in the gifted education program.
The courts found proven biases in tests taken by Black students including biased language (such as idiomatic terms), which may not be familiar to Black students.
Flagler County had 1,821 school suspensions in 2013 of which 33 percent were Black students. In 2014, Black students comprised 36 percent or 1,557 of all suspensions.
Moreover, Blacks represent 39 percent of those suspended multiple times.
“It’s a civil rights issue,” stated Whitaker, “because every child has the right to be in that classroom receiving that instruction every day, and unfortunately in Florida, it (suspension) happens here more than any other place.”
Coalition for Student Success
The settlement agreement was unanimously passed by the Flagler school board and calls for the SPLC to withdraw the complaint it filed with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights in 2012.
It expires in June 2018 placing the district in a probationary period with the SPLC and holding it responsible for fulfilling specific requirements that include expanded accountability for an existing committee that predates the settlement called the “Coalition for Student Success.”
Comprised of 11 members, the coalition consists of parents, students, community members, one of whom must represent the local NAACP chapter, the sheriff’s office, a mental health counselor and a representative from the school district’s administrative staff.
They are required to hold their first meeting of the school year by Sept. 15 and must then meet at least quarterly to review disciplinary data and make recommendations to the superintendent regarding disciplinary policies.
All subsequent quarterly meetings must be public with notices posted two weeks prior, and the panel must also provide a final annual report to the district’s board of directors.
Concrete policies that stem from the reached agreement are vast, but ultimately seek to eradicate the most discriminatory disciplinary actions: suspensions.
District approval will be required for suspensions of five or more days this upcoming school year, and for three or more days in the next school year. The district will consider eradicating suspensions completely once an alternative school program is created.
The agreement further mandates that Superintendent Jacob Oliva write an advisory letter spelling out the mission of school resource deputies. Oliva will collaborate with SPLC attorneys to establish satisfactory language. The latter aspect of the settlement hints that the district may eventually “re-establish an alternative program.”
A previous alternative school program was closed following budget cuts.
“We appreciate the agreement; I think it’s a collaborative, cooperative kind of agreement,” said Colleen Conklin, chairman of the Flagler County School Board. “When we tend to shine the light on things we tend to know what we’re working with, and work better to try to improve them.”
The school district and law enforcement also will work to reduce in-school arrests for minor offenses and schools are encouraged to consider alternatives to suspension like peer mediation and an innovative restorative justice program.
The SPLC is still pursuing federal civil rights complaints in Escambia, Bay, Okaloosa and Suwannee school districts.
For more information on the Freedom Fund Banquet, contact Chairman Donald Matthews at 646-220-9600 or the NAACP at 386-446-7822.