In December of 2007, the Pinellas County School Board of Pinellas County, Fla., discontinued its integration policy. Violence and a decline in student performance struck the school systems, and in 2015, the Tampa Bay Times released “Failure Factories,” a five-part investigation of the effects on both students and the community.
As part of The Livingston Lectures and the Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium, Lisa Gartner, Michael LaForgia and Nathaniel Lash, lead reporters of the investigation and 2016 Livingston Award winners, joined Prof. Tabbye Chavous as well as moderator Prof. Brian Jacob for a panel Wednesday afternoon at the Ford School of Public Policy to discuss the investigation itself. The speakers also spoke about the reforms and changes in policy that have resulted from the national recognition of the issue.
The investigation began with Gartner and Cara Fitzpatrick, also of the Tampa Bay Times, when they noticed differences in test scores between students among local schools. Cara had previous experience with four other large districts in Florida before reporting for the Tampa Bay Times, and had noticed that Black students in Pinellas had lower standardized test scores than those in the other school districts she had covered.
“Simultaneously, Lisa, who had come from Washington, was interested in looking at the punishment of Black children in our schools, in particular young Black kids,” LaForgia said. “She requested some data that showed that young Black kids in our school district were being punished at rates that far outstripped the rates that white kids were being punished. It seemed like they were being punished more harshly for minor, hard to define offenses.”
When they began their research, their data showed even more striking results. They found in the Pinellas school district, 84 percent of Black elementary students were failing state exams. As the schools continued to become more segregated, the test scores of their students continued to decline.
“Today they score worse than any school in the county,” LaForgia said. “They score worse than almost any school in the state. Ten Florida elementary schools have similar failure rates. Take away privately run charters, and there are eight, take away schools for children with disabilities or behavioral problems, and there are six, take away a non-traditional early learning center, and look what’s left. The five elementary schools in Pinellas county’s Black neighborhoods.”
To supplement the educational data, they found violence in the schools has also been on the rise. They continually heard stories from parents stating that their children were having difficulty learning because of violence and disruption in the classroom, hallways and overall school climate. One mother described to the reporters the degree to which her daughter was bullied in school.
“She ended up laying down in the car pickup line in the path of oncoming cars and telling the teacher that she didn’t want to live anymore,” LaForgia said. “We found that children at these schools have been shoved, slapped, punched or kicked more than 7,500 times since 2010. The equivalent of eight times a day, every day, for five years straight.”
They found the inclusion of personal stories like these to be crucial in crafting a distinctive account of the incidents students and parents face on a day-to-day basis. Gartner was at the head of interviewing people to validate data, and found the statements she received to be extremely helpful.
“The human storytelling we did for ‘Failure Factories’ went a long way, I think, in turning that data and these policy decisions into realities that played out for real people struggling to get their kids not even an amazing education, but an adequate education,” Gartner said.
Since the time of the investigation, several policy changes have been made at all levels of the educational system. At the district level, an eight-person team was hired to oversee the schools in the district, re-interviews have been held for all teachers and a minority achievement officer has been hired. They also reduced the allowed number of days that students can be suspended and opened centers for these suspended students to receive tutors and counseling. At the federal level, the Department of Education opened a civil rights investigation into the district.
“Arne Duncan, the Secretary of Education, and his successor John King came down to Campbell Park Elementary,” Gartner said. “They spoke there and put a lot of pressure on the superintendent. They called what had been done there ‘education malpractice’ and a ‘mandated disaster.’ ”
Education junior Gabrielle Rubinstein attended the discussion and highlighted the importance of understanding the issues that affect schools around the country.
“This specific situation that they’re talking about is something that is happening all over, and I was really interested in hearing the journalistic perspective of it,” Rubinstein said. “Usually you don’t hear about that because there are many sides that come to issues with education, so it’s important to hear all sides to find out the real truth.”
Abbie Stull, also a junior in the School of Education, found the panel to be informative in relation to the process of the investigation.
“The overview that they gave at the beginning was very helpful to understanding the entire process that they went through,” she said. “I thought it was just great overall; it talked a lot about education in that school specifically, and I felt that I learned a lot about that situation.”
The Livingston Lectures will host its next event, “Leaks, Whistleblowers and Big Data: Collaborative Journalism Across Borders” Feb. 20 in the Rackham Amphitheatre.