The school-to-prison pipeline in Pinellas

BY SKYLA LUCKEY, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — The recent Pinellas County Schools “report card” compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center echoes the Tampa Bay Times’ investigative report with its startling statistics.

More than 100 concerned parents and community members met at Bethel Community Baptist Church last Thurs., Dec. 17 to listen to a panel discussion with Dr. Ricardo Davis, president of Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students (COQEBS), Maria Scruggs, President of NAACP St. Petersburg Branch, Dr. Amir Whitaker, staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Elder James Myles from Bethel Community Baptist Church.

Pinellas County has some of the lowest achieving and most segregated schools in the state. Harsh discipline policies deprive students of tens of thousands of education hours annually. Students are arrested at a rate nearly twice the state average and five times the rate of counties like Miami-Dade and Broward.

Moderated by Trey Moore of Micah Center, Superintendent Michael Grego and several Pinellas County School Board members sat in the audience and listened to angry citizens call for their resignations.

“The story before us is old,” said Moore about the educational system in Pinellas County. “Because it is so old and dark and sad, we want this story to change.”

Moore contends that without a decent school system, the city will never attack industry.

“How will we get real investments into our city with a school system that looks like this? Is Google coming? Microsoft?” he asked, saying that the first thing they will look at is where their children will go to school.

“At what point the does the school board and the superintendent take responsibility for the lack of closing the disparity between academic achievement in Pinellas County Schools,” Davis asked.

Davis gave a history lesson on the disparity between African-American students and their white counterparts. Back in the 1980s when the district was busing black students, there was achievement gap.

“For those who think that busing will solve this problem, I beg to differ,” Davis said. “We now have them concentrated in the schools in the south side and the problem is much more visible.”

Pinellas County Schools is the seventh largest district in Florida, and has some of the lowest achieving schools in the state. For example, U.S. News and World Report has a school ranking review of each high school in Pinellas County and reports that 69 percent of Gibbs High School students are not proficient in reading, and 76 percent are not proficient in mathematics.

Goliath Davis, the former police chief and deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, remarked how when the first Times article hit the wires, the district was quick to claim that the data was flawed. COQEBS, the Southern Poverty Law Center, The Micah Center and the NAACP all received data from the district.

 “How is it that we can all get the same data and reach the same conclusions, but yet the district says the data is flawed, but it’s their data,” he asked.Scruggs said that in the last 36 years, there has been a lot of legal activity and a lot of programs created that have not yielded results.

“Nobody is going to change the circumstances in our community unless we decided enough is enough,” said Scruggs. “It’s time to stand up and hold Dr. Grego and all of the school board members accountable. If they cannot do the job…we fire them.”

Whitaker, of the Alabama-based nonprofit Law Center, said during his presentation that African-American students are underrepresented in gifted classes; 48 percent of students identified as emotionally and behaviorally disabled are black, twice as many black students drop out of school than white, 32 percent of students held back a grade are black and only eight percent of teachers are African American, nearly half the state average.

In terms of school discipline, he reported that 252,681 hours of school have been missed by black students being suspended since 2010, 54 percent of black students received an in-school suspension compared to 20 percent of white students; 53 percent of students given out-of-school suspensions are black and 23 percent of black students without disabilities were suspended multiple times, nearly four times the rate of white students.

The Law Center said that “unnecessary school-based arrests, suspensions and expulsions… are part of the school-to-prison pipeline that cuts short a child’s education and increases the likelihood of incarceration.”

Myles, who has spent more than 40 years as a prevention and intervention specialist in youth programs said, “We have to come to the table together. No longer can the school board plan for us. No longer can the community be ignored in terms of having a voice and having ideas about what works and what we’d like to see happen.”

  When Grego was given a chance to speak, he explained that principals and other school board members would start looking for alternate disciplinary actions to suspension.  A man from the audience interjected, “They’re going to start looking?” Grego corrected himself and said, “No, they are. They are.”

 When the floor opened up for comments, things got heated very fast. Parent after parent gave examples of how the county is failing their children.

Former Chair of the board of trustees at St. Petersburg College, Deveron Gibbons, said he blames the school system for the recent shootings. He feels if the young black men were in school, they wouldn’t have lost their lives.

Theresa “Momma Tee” Lassiter told School Board member Linda Lerner that it’s time to retire.

Before the meeting concluded, Grego committed to reducing the maximum amount of days of suspension from 10 days to five.

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