Disability complaint filed against Hillsborough schools

10/01/08 Seán Kinane
WMNF Drive-Time News Wednesday | Listen to this entire show:


Hillsborough County schools are violating federal requirements by not providing adequate services to students with disabilities, according to a coalition of advocacy groups.

The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities and the NAACP held a press conference in downtown Tampa this morning to announce they have filed a class-action administrative complaint against the Hillsborough County School system alleging systemic violations of a federal law.

The complaint was filed Wednesday with the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) on behalf of six Hillsborough County public school students who were identified only by their initials.

Marlene Sallo, an attorney with the Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities, said the children range from sixth- to 12th-grade.

“The school system has failed to provide the special services these children need to succeed even though these services are required under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education and Improvement Act, otherwise known as IDEA. These children have also been subjected to repeated disciplinary measures that remove them from the classroom. And the fact is, children cannot succeed unless they are able to stay in the classroom. But in Hillsborough County, children with disabilities are more than twice as likely to lose at least 10 days of school due to suspension or expulsion in comparison to students without disabilities.”

The class-action complaint also includes “all students of the Hillsborough County public school system” who have emotional/behavioral disabilities and are subjected to repeated disciplinary removals from school of more than 10 days. Because it is not a criminal suit, the complaint will be investigated by FDOE, which could order corrective actions, Sallo said.

“Rather than receiving the counseling and psychological and social services these children need and are entitled to under federal law, they are being neglected and subjected to harsh and sometimes illegal discipline that isolates them and takes them out of the classroom. These students are literally being pushed out of school by what is happening in one of the largest school districts in the nation.”

Sallo said only 39 percent of children with disabilities graduated from Hillsborough County public schools in 2005-06, compared with a 75 percent graduation rate for all students. One of the six students named in the complaint is a 10th-grader with disabilities and behavioral problems who functions at a first-grade level in math and reading, according to Sallo.

“Although she, the student was determined to be eligible for special education services in 1998, it was eight years before the school district included any social work, psychological, or counseling services as part of her education. And finally, anger management counseling was provided to the student, but the school never adjusted this counseling, despite repeated suspensions, behavioral incidents, and even arrests during a span of two years. And this is just one example of the egregious violations that have occurred.”

In 2006, the Advancement Project and the NAACP released a study called Arresting Development: Addressing the School Discipline Crisis in Florida. It included results from five public meetings throughout the state, including in St. Petersburg, covering the Pinellas and Hillsborough school districts that found a “statewide problem” of schools “looking to the legal system to handle even the most minor transgressions.”

Pat Spencer is the Area IX Director for the Florida State Conference of the NAACP.

“Do we want children to get their high school diplomas and be productive adults? Or do we want to kick them out and put them behind bars so they can later graduate into adult prisons? Because that’s what happens when we let them fall between the cracks. Children with disabilities are by far the ones most likely to end up behind bars.”

“Seventy percent of the youth in Florida’s juvenile justice system have at least one mental health disorder,” according to Spencer.

“By failing to meet the needs of such students and by adopting harsh zero tolerance policies that push them out of school for minor misconduct, the Hillsborough school district is helping feed Florida’s school to prison pipeline. In fact, Hillsborough leads the state in the number of children it sends to the justice system: almost 1,900 students in the 2006-2007 school year. That’s a shocking number.”

Spencer said discipline should be handled within the school rather than calling law enforcement. Hillsborough schools must stop setting those students up for prison.

Brandi Davis, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, agrees. Davis said out of the 91,000 children processed each year by Florida’s juvenile justice system, 23,000 are sent directly from the schools.

“This is an outrageous number. As Gov. Charlie Crist's blueprint commission report pointed out in January, this is partly because schools have relied too heavily on practices like suspension, expulsion and arrest to deal with discipline. Florida also has the lowest graduation rate for African-Americans; it’s just 31 percent, and that is not acceptable. The complaint we filed today deals specifically with the neglect of children with disabilities. But it is our hope that these reforms will help all children in the school system.”

Davis said that positive reforms have come from the two other states where similar complaints were filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Dropout rates and school climates improved in Louisiana and Mississippi, according to Davis.

A similar press conference was also held Wednesday in Palm Beach County to announce that an administrative complaint against that county’s school board was also filed with the FDOE. Spencer said of all the school districts in Florida, Hillsborough and Palm Beach Counties had the most cases where students with emotional or behavioral disabilities experienced disciplinary removals from class of more than 10 days.

Sallo said if their administrative complaint is acted upon, she expects to see “students remaining in the classroom rather than being suspended or sent home on ‘cool off periods.’ We’re trying to reduce the amount of out-of-school days for students with disabilities, out of school days that have been a result of their behaviors within the classroom. So if we can allow them to modify whatever behaviors are causing them to be suspended, whether in school or out of school, then that will provide that student with the ability to remain in the classroom and receive the services that are federally mandated.”

If that happens, those students would be able to advance academically, Sallo said.

Steve Hegarty, spokesman for Hillsborough County Public Schools, said the school district has been aware of their high number of referrals to law enforcement for some time. The school district shares the same goals as the advocacy groups and are working on programs to keep kids out of the criminal justice system and keep them in school, Hegarty said.

“We actually have a very good record when there are administrative complaints. If a parent disagrees with something, they have the right to make a complaint to the Florida Department of Education. We provide information to the DOE, we have them look over our shoulder and see what we’re doing, we actually have a very good record in that regard. In this case, they’re going to look at six cases, if they find some problems we’re going to fix them. We’re going to look at the cases ourselves, I’m sure the schools are aware of them. But that’s how we’re going to proceed.”

Photo by Seán Kinane/WMNF

Advocacy Center for Persons with Disabilities

Arresting Development: Addressing the School Discipline Crisis in Florida

NAACP Florida State Conference

Southern Poverty Law Center

Hillsborough County Public Schools

Note: Due to time constraints imposed by the WMNF fund drive, the online version of this report is more detailed than the broadcast version.

comments powered by Disqus


Really Need Help

This help is really needed. My son has a disability and we work hard with him every day and pray every day that he can get along in school in Tampa, but every so often he does something impulsive or breaks a rule and gets a referral, suspension, or is sent to the principal. There is never any understanding of his disability on the part of the school; just criticism. He is adopted and his birth mother is a criminal. We will do whatever we can to prevent this from happening to him, but it will probably involve taking him out of Hillsborough County public schools.

About time

I worked as a Medicaid Waiver Support Coordinator (Case Manager) for 5 years. The chronic underfunding of Florida's social and educational services was the main reason I ultimately left the field. It just became too discouraging to see less and less done, year after year, for the most vulnerable individuals in Florida.

They're not the only one's

This same thing is happening in Sarasota County School system. My son is an ESE student and has experienced much of the same issues.

They're not the only one's

This same thing is happening in Sarasota County School system. My son is an ESE student and has experienced much of the same issues.

They're not the only one's

This same thing is happening in Sarasota County School system. My son is an ESE student and has experienced much of the same issues.

My son needs help

My is has behavioral and psych issues that are under constant care by a psychiatrist. He has been arrested once for behavior. Luckily he just had to do a community service program - but he really wasn't able to do everything they assigned him due to his mental disabilities and lack of understanding what he did wrong. The officer who oversaw his service agreed that he was not getting any benefit out of the program and that being in jail was not the appropriate place for him either. He has yet to be given a diagnosis that truly describes him. We pulled him out of school 3 weeks ago after another teacher threatened to press charges against him for throwing a chair at her. Yes that action was very wrong on his part, but does he need to go to court yet again and possibly face jail time that will ultimately harm him and NOT SOLVE his problem??? I understand and agree with the teachers that they need a safe environment to work and teach in. What they need to do is not automatically refer to police when a child acts out who is mentally unable to understand what is going on. I am fully cooperative with the schools in discipline for my son as I know he does wrong frequently, but he does not make the connection of his actions to the consequences. We have yet to figure out if that is a fixable problem. All I want is for him to get an education and be able to be a productive adult. He is in 6th grade and on a 1st grade level in learning.

has anyone ever though that maybe, just maybe, some of these disabilities and special needs are just too much for a public school to handle? as bad as it sounds, some kids that can't control themselves and are a physical danger to the teachers or other students probably shouldn't be in a public school. with every child having an alphabet of conditions, disabilities, exceptions and special needs, when is it too much for the public school to handle? just asking because i read these stories and even by the parents admission the child's behavior is violent towards others. but yet it's the school's fault for not dealing with it properly. I always though YOUR child was YOUR responsibility first. Shouldn't the safety and well being of the staff and other students be considered as well? The public school system cannot possibly accomodate the endless myriad of special needs that are being diagnosed these days AND continue to educate the majority.