Dept. of Justice Finds Florida School District Discriminated Against Students with Disabilities; Routinely Relied on Suspensions and Referrals to Law Enforcement

March 5, 2024, U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) released the findings of its investigation into Pasco County Public Schools (PCPS) and its settlement agreement with PCPS.

Read USDOJ's letter to PCPS, settlement agreement, and settlement agreement summary.

The investigation focused on the 2018-19, 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22 school years and concluded PCPS discriminated against students who have disabilities when it "routinely relied on suspensions and referrals to law enforcement to respond to students’ disability-related behaviors that could have been addressed through proper behavioral interventions and supports."

USDOJ found that PCPS "students with disabilities received suspensions at significantly higher rates than students without disabilities across all grade levels, with particularly pronounced disparities for students with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders and for students at several of the District’s elementary schools."

In its letter to PCPS Superintendent Kurt S. Browning, USDOJ said:

"Instead of implementing individualized behavior intervention plans to address underlying disability-related behaviors, the District relied on boilerplate documents that were not tailored to each student’s specific disability-related needs. The District also failed to ensure that schools implemented Behavior Intervention Plans with fidelity, and it did not collect the data necessary to track student progress under their plans."

The following are a few of the findings USDOJ includes in its letter:

  • PCPS "had no process to determine why the crisis events occurred and how they could be prevented in the future to ensure that students with disabilities participated equally in school. And while District-level and school-based administrators had access to disciplinary trend data for students with disabilities, they did not regularly review it, which would have alerted them to significant District-wide problems with behavioral interventions and supports."
  • PCPS "did not require that law enforcement interactions be documented, and therefore, the District had no reliable data or process through which it could quantify law enforcement engagements and monitor whether the use of law enforcement in response to behavior concerns involving students with disabilities was proper."
  • "SSGs and SROs often responded to behavioral incidents involving students with disabilities, even when they did not involve an imminent health or safety threat and even when non-law enforcement staff had not tried de-escalation, as required by state law."
  • "District staff subjected students with disabilities to threat assessments without accounting for their disabilities, resulting in some students being taken into custody for involuntary psychiatric treatment under the Baker Act for manifestations of their disabilities."

Settlement Agreement

PCPS entered into a settlement agreement requiring it to follow federal law prohibiting discrimination based on disability.

Specific actions required include:

  • Hiring an independent consultant to help improve how PCPS supports students with disability-related behaviors.
  • Appointing a "Behavior Support Coordinator".
  • Appointing one staff member at each school to supervise provision of behavior-related supports and services to student with disabilities.
  • Making updates to its Code of Conduct to provide protections for students with disabilities in the discipline process.
  • Ensuring staff consider student’s disabilities when evaluating alleged threats made by those students.
    alleged threats made by those students.
  • Implement changes to protect students with disabilities from inappropriate referrals to law enforcement.
  • Reviewing data monthly related to the use of discipline, threat assessments, and referrals to law enforcement involving students with disabilities to identify any systemic issues.
  • Updating its professional development program.