TAMPA, Fla. — The Pasco County school district has agreed to change the way its schools treat students with disabilities as part of a settlement related to a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation.

The Justice Department announced the settlement with the school district last month after a lengthy investigation concluded that Pasco schools engaged in disability discrimination.

The department found that Pasco County schools routinely relied on punitive measures, like suspensions or calling police, to manage students whose behaviors related to disabilities. Such behaviors could have been addressed through proper support and de-escalation, the Justice Department said.

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The investigation also identified problems with the way schools conducted threat assessments, which are procedures designed to identify and respond to threats to a school’s security. School personnel in conducting the assessments failed to consider individual student disabilities in relation to their behavior, the Justice Department reported. They often unnecessarily referred such students to law enforcement for arrest or involuntary commitment to mental health facilities under Florida’s Baker Act.

The agreement calls for Pasco schools to end discriminatory practices, which the federal investigation found resulted in students with disabilities losing hours of classroom time, being subjected to unfair threat assessments and facing arrest or commitment to mental health facilities against their will.

Corey Dierdorff, a spokesperson for the school district, said in a statement that the Justice Department’s probe began “in response to an allegation made in 2020” about school data sharing with law enforcement.

The district didn’t elaborate on the source or substance of the allegation, but the investigation began a month after the Tampa Bay Times revealed the Pasco district had been sharing data on academics, attendance and discipline with the Pasco Sheriff’s Office. The sheriff’s office was using the information to create a list of schoolchildren who were likely to become future criminals. Experts who reviewed the effort for the Times said it was likely biased against children with disabilities.

The investigation “eventually shifted” to allegations that the district discriminated against students with disabilities, Dierdorff said. It focused on how students with disabilities were treated in Pasco County schools from 2018 to 2022.

The district was identified as meeting the requirements of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, with “no significant discipline disproportionality for students with disabilities during the same period,” Dierdorff said.

“Though we do not agree that we engaged in any discriminatory behavior or practices, we believe in continuous improvement, and we fully cooperated during the investigation,” he said. “In the spirit of cooperation, the district signed a settlement agreement with the (Department of Justice) and committed to changes in support of our continuous improvement efforts.”

District officials provided the Justice Department with more than 20,000 documents, including school discipline policies, student records, and emails and other documents exchanged between district personnel and the Pasco Sheriff’s Office.

The investigation concluded that the district engaged in disability discrimination, according to a letter the department sent to Pasco School Superintendent Kurt Browning.

One example federal officials cited involved a kindergarten student with an emotional behavior disability who was suspended from school four times, a total of seven days, over a two-month period. The department found no evidence that school officials took any steps to address the student’s behavioral concerns.

In another case, a sixth grader with autism received multiple suspensions in a single month for behaviors related to his disability, the department found. The student had permission to take breaks and use noise-canceling headphones, but the school did not follow the plan, investigators found.

The agreement includes a detailed plan for changes the district will make to better serve students with disabilities. The changes include measures to ensure district personnel accurately assess disability-related behaviors and use appropriate interventions. The agreement also requires the district to hire a consultant with expertise in behavior interventions, who will assist in updating policies and practices.

The district will also update its code of conduct and threat assessment processes to avoid disability discrimination, train school personnel on how to appropriately respond to disability-related behavior, and improve data collection processes.

The Justice Department will monitor the district’s implementation of the agreement.

© 2024 Tampa Bay Times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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