TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Six students at Florida A&M University are suing Florida for what they say is a long-running lack of equity between investment in state Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and their “traditionally white institution” counterparts. The class-action lawsuit was opened Thursday, basing its grounds on alleged violations of the Civil Rights Act.
“Throughout its history and up to the present day, Florida has purposefully engaged in a pattern and practice of racial discrimination, principally through disparate funding, that has prevented HBCUs, including FAMU, from achieving parity with their traditionally White institution (“TWI”) counterparts,” the lawsuit alleges.
The filing in court states the disparity builds upon a history of “deficient” funding and availability of access to higher education to minority students.
A 1998 agreement, signed by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles to partner with the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, was aimed at addressing issues with student retention, graduation, provision of support services, lack of diversity in policy boards, faculty, and staff, clustering of racial minority students, and campus atmosphere, according to the lawsuit.
Britney Denton, Nyabi Stevens, Deidrick Dansby, Fayerachel Peterson, Alexander Harris, and an anonymous sixth plaintiff say that despite the partnership to “strengthen and improve academic programs and facilities for FAMU students,” the state of Florida has failed to meet those obligations since 2003, when it “issued a report claiming that” all of the obligations had been fulfilled.
“In reality, Defendants have failed to meet their obligations under the Partnership Agreement and their constitutional obligations under the Equal Protection Clause, Title VI, and other applicable law,” the court filing said. “Plaintiffs bring this action seeking to enjoin Defendants from continuing their pattern and practice of discrimination against FAMU.”
Through the lawsuit, the plaintiffs say they want Florida’s state government to “make FAMU whole” and help the HBCU “achieve complete parity with Florida’s TWIs” within five years. If the federal Court does not grant the students’ request for relief, they say they “will continue to suffer discrimination in Florida’s system of higher education.”
For the lawsuit, the six students at FAMU are suing the State University System of Florida, the university system Board of Governors, the State of Florida, and SUS Chancellor Marhsall M. Criser III.
The lawsuit said as a state, “Florida has systematically engaged in policies and practices that established and perpetuated, and continue to perpetuate, a racially segregated system of higher education” starting in 1851 when it established Florida State University, at the time a white-only institution. It wasn’t until 1887, according to the court filing, that FAMU was opened as the State Normal College for Colored Students.
The name of the school was changed three more times, from 1891 to 1953, ending with the current name, FAMU, the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University. The next year, the lawsuit points out, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, ruling that segregated schools violated the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.
The plaintiffs say Florida did not lifting admissions rules to meet requires of the Brown decision until 1964, upon passage of the federal Civil Rights Act, going further to say the state did not solve the problem of segregation in higher education in the state until 1978 when the U.S. OCR accepted Florida’s Plan for Equal Access and Equal Opportunity in Public Higher Education.
The 1998 partnership between Florida and OCR to make improvements to “decades-long struggles over segregation and racial discrimination” were a continuation of the process started in 1978 to build new facilities, provide more resources to, and improve educational equity at HBCU campuses, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs accuse Florida of failing to meet those obligations at FAMU, including use of capital enhancements, funding, program duplication and courses offered, provide for campus programs and activities, have diverse faculty and staff, and efforts to retain students and improve graduation rates.
The suit was filed as a class action case to cover those all “similarly situated” in Florida. There are four HBCUs in the state, with three others with FAMU. Through the suit, the plaintiffs allege that the disparity between HBCUs and TWIs amounts to segregation in higher education, violating the Title VI Civil Rights protections built through federal legislation.