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Published in Print: October 12, 2005, as Fla. District Pressed on Black Achievement

Fla. District Pressed on Black Achievement

Class action focuses on poor outcomes in Pinellas County.

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African-American students in Pinellas County, Fla., could get the opportunity in court to show that they receive inferior educations and face discriminatory practices in classrooms.

A 5-year-old lawsuit arguing that the 113,000-student county school district fails to provide a high-quality education to its 21,000 black students was upheld as a class action in a ruling issued late last month by a three-judge panel of the state’s Second District Court of Appeal, in Lakeland, Fla.

In the Sept. 28 ruling, Judge Douglas A. Wallace wrote that “from the landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education to the present, courts have generally allowed claims such as the ones presented by the class representatives involving allegations of racial discrimination in the public schools to proceed as class actions.”

The ruling furthers a deepening divide in the West Florida community, which includes St. Petersburg, pitting those who believe that societal and cultural factors—such as poverty and a lack of parental involvement—are chiefly to blame for African-American students’ bleak academic outcomes against those who believe that the school system has largely abdicated its responsibility to educate all children.

“[The school district] is saying, ‘We’re doing the best that we can,’ ” said Chimurenga Waller of the International People’s Democratic Uhuru Movement, a St. Petersburg-based activist organization sympathetic to the lawsuit’s claims. “We’re saying, show us what you’ve been doing. But it’s a smoke screen—there’s nothing there.”

Charter School Plan

According to Mr. Waller, research conducted by the plaintiffs shows that black students are almost twice as likely to be expelled from school as their white classmates. District statistics show that roughly 40 percent of Pinellas County’s black students earn high school diplomas, compared with about 70 percent of white students in 2002-03. And state test scores show that fewer than a third of the county’s black students and almost two-thirds of its white students were reading at grade level in 2003-04.

An assistant for Pinellas County Assistant Superintendent Ron Stone said the district has been asked by its lawyers not to comment on the lawsuit. But district spokesman Sterling Ivey told the St. Petersburg Times last week: “Even if we decide not to appeal further, we’re prepared to go to court to defend our actions.”

Superintendent Clayton M. Wilcox told the newspaper last month, “It’ll be interesting to see if [the plaintiffs] can prove their case on the merits.”

Mr. Waller said the 2000 lawsuit, Crowley v. Pinellas County, evolved from a failed effort among some local residents to open a charter school in a poor section of a black community in the county in the late 1990s.

The Pinellas County school board denied the contract to open Marcus Garvey Academy because the school’s organizers could not guarantee that 55 percent of its enrollment would consist of white students, in accordance with the district’s racial ratios for student assignment.

Those ratios are a byproduct of a 1964 desegregation lawsuit against the district. A federal judge declared the Pinellas system unitary, or free of the vestiges of segregation, in 2000. The district has since adopted a plan to encourage and maintain integration by parental choice once the court-ordered ratios end in 2008.

Frustrated by the roadblocks that barred the opening of their charter school, the organizers, led by Tampa-based lawyer Guy M. Burns, focused on ensuring all African-American students were receiving a high-quality education, a right guaranteed under the Florida Constitution.

William L. Crowley, the named plaintiff in the lawsuit on behalf of his son Akwete Osoka, now 13, said African-American parents are aware of how bad the schools are for their children, but don’t know what to do. Mr. Crowley’s wife had planned to teach at Marcus Garvey Academy, where the couple hoped to enroll their son.

But Mr. Crowley stressed that the full blame for lagging achievement among African-American students should not be on the schools.

“I agree that parents bear some of the responsibility for educating our children, and we’d like to take that responsibility. But you didn’t let us,” Mr. Crowley said, referring to the failed charter school application.

Now, he added: “We want public education to take on its responsibility, too.”

Maree F. Sneed, a Washington lawyer who has worked on numerous desegregation cases, said in an e-mail that the Crowley case “appears to be a hybrid of desegregation/discrimination suits on one hand and educational adequacy suits on the other hand.”

Ms. Sneed noted that certification as a class action is not necessarily an indication of how strong a case is.

Rosa A. Smith, the president of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, a philanthropy in Cambridge, Mass., that has focused on improving the education of black males said she believes the education of black students in Pinellas County schools should be tested in the courts.

The district, she acknowledged, does not have control over all of the factors that may influence a child’s education. But, she added: “What happens in schools matters.”

Vol. 25, Issue 07, Pages 3,14

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