L-R, LDF Attorneys Roger Plata, Enrique Escarraz, Angel Harris and Elizabeth Reese
BY RAVEN JOY SHONEL, Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG – Last year plaintiffs in a 50-year-old federal desegregation lawsuit against Pinellas County School went back to court in a bid to force the school board to fulfill the stipulations of the case. Last Saturday, the St. Petersburg Branch of the NAACP held a forum to collect information from parents and teacher to use in the lawsuit.
Charles Rutledge and five other black parents filed a federal lawsuit against the Pinellas School Board in 1964 that led to the desegregation of Pinellas County schools. Known as Leon W. Bradley, Jr., et al. v. Board of Public Instruction of Pinellas County, it made the case that separate was inherently unequal. In 2017, this case is still seeking equal rights and opportunity for African-American children.
NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) Attorney Roger Plata said the Bradley case actually began in 1940 when the defense fund was founded. Created to promote justice and racial equality, founding leader Thurgood Marshall filed a lawsuit to desegregate schools in Topeka, Kansas.
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that separate schools were not equal in the case known as Brown v. the Board of Education. A determination was made that schools must desegregate district by district.
In Pinellas County, Attorney James B. Sanderlin and the LDF filed a complaint against the Pinellas County School board. In 1971, a final judgment was entered by the U.S. District Court that allowed them to take control of the schools and start forced bussing in order to integrate.
Children began to be bussed all over the county to meet ratios. By the time the late 1990s rolled around, people in the community had grown weary of busing their children, and at the same time the U.S. District Court decided they did not want to control school districts anymore.
The LDF negotiated for months and after a series of stipulations, the school districts was returned to the school board. In doing so, the district had to follow 105 pages of stipulations and orders that were required in order for them to resume control.
LDF Attorney Enrique Escarraz III took over the case from Sanderlin in the 1970s when he became the first black judge in Pinellas County.
“We had by my count 15 months of mediation negotiations that included 33 half-day sessions, and came up with an agreement with the school district that was approved by the court that would allow the district to have control over their schools,” said Escarraz.
The issues presented during the case dealt with six different aspects of education: student assignment, faculty, administrations, facilities and resources, transportation and extracurricular activities. Later, quality of education was added to make seven factors.
It was the goal of the plaintiffs to ensure that the school board lived up to the stipulations, and since they have not, the LDF is gathering ammunition for their day in court.
LDF Attorney Angel Harris said they wanted to hear from the parents who are affected by the school board’s failure to teach their children.
“It’s time to hear your voices; it’s time for us to uplift your voices and for our children to succeed,” she said.
Parents lined up to make their voices heard. Constance Ellis said her child scored high in science, but it was up to her to get him in an advanced class. She feels the school should recognize advanced students and place them properly.
“If we don’t encourage our kids to take those types of classes, they won’t,” she said.
Willie Mingo said his son’s behavioral issues stemmed from his problems in reading. Instead of more attention being placed on his reading deficiencies, he was labeled a problem and the issues grew.
Mother of six Candice Moore said there is a huge difference in north county schools. Her daughter felt suicidal until she moved her to a Ridgecrest Elementary School in Largo, and now she’s an honor roll student.
Moore encouraged parents to become more engaged and more active in their children’s school.
“It’s not the school’s complete responsibility to educate your children,” she stated. “We need to work with our children at home.”
Etta Tucker’s said her granddaughter was complaining of being bullied and wrote a letter to the principal at Melrose Elementary asking to switch her class. The assistant principal intervened, and once she heard Tucker encouraged her granddaughter to write the letter, she told her that her grandmother was the problem.
Relations broke down so badly that a no trespass notice was placed on her. She was only allowed to drop her granddaughter off and pick her up. She could not step foot on campus without expressed permission from the principal.
Tucker was happy to announce that her granddaughter now attends Midtown Academy, and is considered the smartest girl in her class.
Dominique Clarkson teaches at Midtown Academy and from what she has witnessed feels that teachers need help with classroom management and cultural barriers, and students need help the trauma that comes from within the home.
Taking matters into her own hands, she has a meditation room to help the kids deal with stress and anxiety.
NAACP St. Petersburg Branch President Maria L. Scruggs closed with telling parents that they should not buy into the idea that black children will somehow get smarter sitting next to white children.
“If you can teach white children, you can teach black children,” she said, adding that busing children only masked the county’s failures and that it wasn’t until black children went back to their neighborhood schools that the problems came to light.
If you were unable to attend the forum, you can contact Attorney Elizabeth Reese at (202) 216-5563 with your experiences.