JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — An Action News Jax investigation reveals more African-American students are suspended from schools in Duval County than in any other school district in Florida.
According to state records from the 2017-2018 school year (Opens as Excel file), Duval County Public Schools accounted for 13% of Florida's out-of-school suspensions for black students, the highest in the state.
“That is outrageous. Outrageous," Lisa Acker said.
Acker's daughter was suspended from Sandalwood High School last year for a fight that was recorded on cellphones and shared. Acker said the video shows her daughter being beaten by another student. When Acker was called to the school a few hours later:
"She was basically punished, packed up and ready to go by the time I went to pick her up,” Acker said.
Acker said the video proved her daughter was attacked, but she says the school suspended her anyway. Both students are African-American.
Documents from the Florida Department of Education show in Duval County, 70 percent of all out-of-school suspensions last school year involved African-American students, even though the group represents about 43 percent of the total student body.
“I think we're in school system now where they feel comfortable treating the children in this manner of suspending them after fights,” Acker said. "I think something needs to be done. There's no equality, it needs to be looked into and fixed."
Jackie Simmons is Executive Director of Discipline and Student Services for Duval County Schools.
"My reaction is while we recognize the disproportionality of African-American students being suspended, it’s not just an issue that is germane to Duval County. It is a national and statewide issue," Simmons said.
We broke down the top five districts with the highest rates of African-American out-of-school suspensions. In Broward County, 40 percent of the student body is black, but the group accounts for 65 percent of all suspensions.
Using available data from the Department of Education (Opens as Excel file), Action News Jax broke down the numbers by school and found 5 Duval County middle schools had the highest percentage of suspensions for African-American students. While most of the schools are predominantly African-American, we found one school where the disparity is glaring.
At Landmark Middle School, 36 percent of the student body is African American, but the group accounts for 70 percent of all out-of-school suspensions.
Simmons said of the district's efforts to decrease those numbers, “We are focused on an effort to create synergy on decreasing that disparity among African Americans and other ethnic groups."
“You're dealing with kids from kindergarten through 12th that come to school with different issues and concerns and different ways of dealing with things. I think our job is to put support networks around those kids that allow them opportunity to have a safe space.”
Simmons points to the district's mental health support program, peer to peer and adult mediation, and something new called restorative justice. Students and parents on both sides sit down to talk about the issues driving behavior.
Simmons said Duval County Public Schools 59-page Code of Conduct (Opens as PDF) ensures punishment guidelines are the same regardless of who the student is or where they attend, but he adds, "We try to look at each school independently and each student independently."
Acker believes that didn't happen in her daughter's case.
"It's become a go-to for them. Let’s just suspend the kids and it will go away,” she said.
According to the State Attorney's Office, the girl who attacked Lisa Acker's daughter was arrested in January of this year. Two months later, she pleaded no contest to misdemeanor battery. In the report, the investigator said school surveillance and cell phone video showed Acker's daughter being repeatedly hit.
When we asked DCPS about its handling of the case, a spokesperson sent this statement:
"School and district leaders review disciplinary infractions on our campus in light of the Student Code of Conduct and assign discipline accordingly after an investigation is completed. Investigation includes a review of all available evidence including interviews with participants and witnesses, and a review of video and/or photographic evidence. While we are prohibited by state and federal student confidentiality laws from discussing the specifics of this incident, we can confirm that this investigative process was followed in this case, with reviews done by school officials, district officials and school police over multiple weeks. Our goal is to ensure both the safety of our campuses and the fair and equitable issuance of appropriate school discipline."
Cox Media Group