Suwannee Democrat

Local News

August 20, 2012

Complaint against Suwannee school district alleges discrimination

Live Oak — A federal complaint filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center alleges that the Suwannee County School District discriminates against African-American students.

The complaint was sent to the United States Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights, in May. A supplement was sent in June. 

According to Stephanie Langer, staff attorney of the Florida Office of SPLC, the complaint was filed “on behalf of African-American students who have been or will be subjected to discriminatory disciplinary removal and disproportionate arrests while attending schools within the district. Complainants allege that (Suwannee County schools) has discriminated against them on the basis of race by engaging in practices that have the effect of discrimination in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its impending regulations.”

Similar complaints were filed against Bay, Escambia, Flagler and Okaloosa counties.

“We received complaints from parents in Suwannee County,” Langer said. 

Suwannee County was the first county filed against, she said, which took over a year to investigate the claims. 

The 21 page complaint and 16 page supplement used complainant statements and data such as graduation rates to support their claims. 

“Overall, the district graduated 71.6 percent of white students versus only 57.6 percent of black students, resulting in a 14 percent race-based gap in outcomes within the same cohort,” the complaint reads. “Between 2006-07 and 2010-11, there has been a 12 percent decrease in the percentage of African-American students graduating from (high schools in Suwannee County).”

Langer said her and others in her office were “surprised by what we saw.”

The complaint cites issues reported by four students known only by their age and initials. The supplement recognizes at least 16 other students.

One of the incidents stated in the supplement occurred earlier this year in which three black students were arrested for inciting a riot at Suwannee High School. The situation surrounded the display of Confederate flags on and off campus of SHS. 

According to Langer, the SPLC filed a complaint instead of an actual lawsuit because “we have more control with a complaint”, such as a quicker resolution. 

Langer said the Office of Civil Rights will conduct an investigation into the claims and will make a decision from there. It is not yet know how long the investigation can take. 

Suwannee County Superintendent of Schools Jerry Scarborough wouldn’t comment on the complaint and referred all inquiries to the school board’s attorney.

“The allegations are false,” Leonard Dietzen, of Tallahassee firm Rumberger, Kirk & Caldwell, said. “The statistics were misused. We look forward to vindicating ourselves with the department of education. Suwannee County does not disparately treat any students.”

The complaint and supplement also stated issues with parts of the district’s disciplinary policies, mainly that school administrators have too much leeway in determining what constitutes certain levels of infractions and the what punishment should be carried out, if any.

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