School race suit stays in Clearwater

Published May 30, 2007

CLEARWATER - A class-action lawsuit alleging Pinellas schools have failed to properly educate black children will go to trial in Clearwater as planned, under a compromise reached Tuesday by a Pinellas judge.

Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nelly N. Khouzam said she would direct that the jury pool for the trial include residents from throughout the county. Normally, juries who sit in the downtown Clearwater courthouse are drawn from north of Ulmerton Road, where the black population is about 5 percent compared with nearly 15 percent for the southern half of the county.

The plaintiffs wanted the trial to take place in the St. Petersburg Judicial Building in downtown St. Petersburg. At that location, according to the plaintiffs' attorney Guy Burns, more members of the city's black community might be seated as jurors and could attend the trial.

Khouzam said it was the first time that someone asked to move from one Pinellas courthouse to another.

She said of concerns about the racial makeup of the jury: "That's a very compelling reason that the court is concerned with."

In reaching her compromise, she said: "This is a very important case for everyone."

The trial was scheduled for the downtown Clearwater courthouse because Burns' law firm filed the case there in August 2000.

The plaintiff class is composed of the 20, 000 black children who attend, plus those who will enter, Pinellas public schools.

Also Tuesday, Khouzam moved the trial from July 9 to a yet-to-be determined date this fall.

The original lawsuit, which came to be called the "Crowley case, " had three lead plaintiffs. One died, another moved to Georgia and a third, William Crowley, has withdrawn. Crowley was listed a plaintiff on behalf of his son, Akwete Osoka, then a 7-year-old student at Sawgrass Elementary School in St. Petersburg.

The suit alleges that the child, who is black, faced academic problems that were "typical of those difficulties commonly faced by students of African descent."

It also alleges that Pinellas failed to provide an adequate education to black students, in violation of Florida law and the state Constitution.