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Federal civil rights investigation begins in Pinellas school district

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PINELLAS COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – The Federal Department of Education Office of Civil Rights has started an investigation into Pinellas County Schools to determine whether there is discrimination against African American students.

The “compliance review” follows months of controversy and criticism regarding failing elementary schools in St. Petersburg with a large percentage of black student enrollment. Those schools are Campbell Park Elementary, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose.

Former St. Petersburg City Councilman Wengay Newton says all of his kids attended Fairmount and the troubles in that school are no surprise to him. “Every year my wife and I got a letter saying it was under-performing and we could take ’em somewhere else,” Newton said.

“This compliance review will examine whether the District discriminates against African American students with respect to providing access to courses, programs, and extracurricular activities, including access to foundation courses that are essential to prepare students to take rigorous courses in high school and to provide them with the skills necessary for success in college and/or career,” a notice sent to the district says.

Pinellas County Schools has hired a troubleshooter to address concerns raised in a newspaper investigation and by parents and community leaders. Spokeswoman Lisa Wolf insists that black graduation rates are increasing, as well as black student enrollment in gifted and advanced placement classes.

“I think I would want to say to parents that we’re taking this issue very seriously and we feel we have a plan in place to address their concerns,” Wolf said.

Maybe so, but troubles were so bad last October that then-Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan accused the district of “malpractice” when it came to the five schools labeled as “failure factories” by a Tampa Bay Times investigation.

Congresswoman Kathy Castor has been quite vocal in her concerns and told 8 On Your Side Tuesday the OCR investigation is “very serious.” Castor insists there are a lot of unanswered questions about how the schools were allowed to sink to such dismal failure levels and why promises made to the black community were not kept by the district. “There has to be  a sense of urgency to make some dramatic changes,” Castor said.

The OCR investigation could take six months or longer and possibly result in a withholding of federal tax dollars if the district doesn’t remedy any discrimination problems uncovered by that inquiry.

Meanwhile, the Pinellas school board will meet for a workshop April 12 to discuss possible solutions, including longer school days, at the five failing schools. The board will also discuss up to $25,000 in bonuses for teachers who raise the performance of those schools.

“We want to make sure our most qualified teachers that we have in Pinellas County are being paired with our most at need students,” officials said. Critics suggest whatever the district is doing to make that happen is long overdue.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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