by K. Chandler
Westside Gazette 10/8/2008
Nearly four years after the Advancement Project’s landmark study, Education on Lockdown: the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track, demonstrated how ‘zero tolerance’ policies within the Palm Beach County School District (PBCSD)— originally designed to address serious behavioral issues — morphed into a “take no prisoners” approach to school discipline, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), along with a consortium of civil rights organizations, have now filed formal complaints against the Hillsborough and PBCSD asserting that students with special needs are being subjected to neglect as well as unnecessarily harsh discipline that essentially put them on a track from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse.
The complaint, raised by the NAACP, Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County, Fla. Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities and the Southern Legal Counsel was lodged with the Florida Department of Education, Oct. 1, 2008 on behalf of four special education students who’d faced frequent and harsh discipline. The complaint cites a woeful lack of psychological counseling, and other social services mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education and Improvement Act (IDEA), the end result being that the students were frequently removed from class to the detriment of their education.
“This is a systemic problem that really needs to be addressed at the highest levels of the school district,” said Barbara Burch Briggs, staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society.
Studies have consistently shown that by far Black males are the ones being disproportionately targeted and tracked into the juvenile justice system for relatively minor incidences that should have been dealt with by the school system. Between 2006 and 2007, Black males made up a third of the state’s 23,000 criminal justice referrals despite comprising slightly over 20 percent of Florida’s aggregate student population. Roughly 70 percent of all youth referred to the juvenile justice system have mental health issues, the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) estimates.
“These school districts are violating the civil rights of their most vulnerable students — those with disabilities,” stated David Utter, director of the SPLC’s Florida Initiatives. “Rather than providing these students with the educational services they need and are entitled to under federal law, they are pushing them out of school.”
Compounding the situation, many elementary students enrolled in the PBCSD with behavioral and emotional issues, despite having an average IQ, were found to lag far behind their academic grade level when they advanced to middle school. Making matters worse, only a third of students with disabilities attending Palm Beach County schools graduated compared to nearly two-thirds of students in general. Moreover, the dropout rate is 13 percent for emotionally disabled students compared to 4 percent overall, according to statistics compiled between 2005 & 2006.
The complaint filed by the consortium also comes on the heels of a national report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) released in September, entitled: A Violent Education: Corporal Punishment of Children in U.S. Public Schools that noted, among other things, that African Americans were punished 1.4 times more than white students even though their alleged transgressions were not disproportionately higher, and “special education students — students with mental or physical disabilities — also receive corporal punishment at disproportionate rates.”
The report coincides with a newly-proposed State Board of Education rule, that if enacted, would permit even greater use of force in schools by administrators and teachers – something many parents and child advocates reject out of hand as only making matters worse, particularly with respect to special needs students who are already bearing an unfair burden of harsh discipline and neglect.
“Over-inclusion and under-inclusion each have race implications, as do zero-tolerance practices that lead to racially disparate suspensions and expulsions – and involvement in the juvenile justice system for Black and Latino students with disabilities,” stated Florida State Conference NAACP President, Adora Nweze, who was formerly involved in special education. “Children of color were already being ground down by this flawed system in Palm Beach County schools. Now it appears the entire system has collapsed on top of them.”