Top administrator alleges racial discrimination

Source: Herald-Tribune

Published: Friday, December 5, 2008 at 1:00 a.m.

SARASOTA COUNTY - The school system's highest-ranking black administrator is complaining of discrimination, prompting an investigation by the district.

Assistant Superintendent Hal Nelson stated in a memo to Superintendent Lori White that co-workers undermine him, and the district treats him differently because he is black. He cites being excluded from district meetings, denied travel opportunities and told he cannot hire a secretary as examples.

"You have no idea of the pain involved in having to address matters of clear racial harassment and discrimination," Nelson writes.

Nelson also raised concerns that the district does not give him the resources he needs to oversee a federal program to stop students from being wrongly placed in special education.

 Hal Nelson, assistant superintendent for Sarasota County schools.

Hal Nelson, assistant superintendent for Sarasota County schools.

White responded to all of Nelson's complaints in an e-mail, and says the district will hire an investigator to look into his concerns. She hopes to have the issue settled by the end of the year.

"That you would have this belief is personally upsetting to me because I believe I have always been supportive of you and your work in the school district," White writes. "Let me make clear, I have not taken any action, or withheld any action toward you, because of your race."

The e-mail exchange started with a note from Nelson outlining roadblocks as he tries to implement plans to help struggling students do better before placing them in special education.

The misplacement of students is of particular concern among minority children, who nationwide are often disproportionately placed in special education.

Part of the new federal program's purpose is to make sure that all students -- not just those placed in special education classes -- have access to extra help.

It also aims to prevent wrongfully labeling struggling students with learning disabilities and placing them in special education classes when it is not necessary.

Nationwide, black and minority students are placed in special education classes much more frequently than white children.

While black students made up about 10 percent of Sarasota's school population last year, they represented about a third of children classified with behavior problems or mental handicaps, according to a state report. The state report also shows that black students in Sarasota are more than six times as likely to carry these labels as white children.

The same was true at the state level. While blacks represented about a quarter of Florida students last year, they turned up in much higher numbers in special education programs.

In response to Nelson's letter questioning the district's commitment to the program, White said it is a very broad initiative, and that there are other departments working to implement it and several different funding sources -- not just the ones that fall under Nelson.

Nelson came to Sarasota County in 2005 to serve as the executive director of middle schools. Before that he spent more than 20 years as a teacher and administrator in Hillsborough County.

In 2007, former Superintendent Gary Norris promoted him to assistant superintendent and charged him with overseeing the district's strategic plan, Next Generation Learning.

That same year, Nelson sent several memos to Norris stating that he was told not to express concerns to his supervisor and that his office was moved to an isolated place in the district office.

"Just as many other African-American administrators have found in the past, I find myself in a somewhat uncomfortable position in the School District of Sarasota County," Nelson wrote.

Nelson said Thursday that he has been advised to hold off on comments about his complaints while they are under investigation, but that he is hopeful they can be resolved. "I'm pretty sure that as things start to unfold that there will be some transparency," he said.