9 Investigates: Are all students disciplined the same?

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. — An Osceola County family believes their daughter was expelled from school because of her race, so 9 Investigates started digging into the issue.

Nationwide data from the U.S. Department of Education shows minority students are disciplined more often and more harshly than their peers.

Investigative reporter Daralene Jones discovered minority students throughout central Florida are in fact disciplined more often than whites, too.

Rebekah Fudge-Guerra is an honor roll student and said she used to run track at Celebration High School until she was expelled.

Now she's taking online classes at home, because her parents don't want her in an alternative school.

EXCEL: DOE Discipline by gender/grade/race

"She's expelled for two years for defending herself. That's very extreme," said her mother, Robin Fudge-Guerra.

Rebekah told 9 Investigates she was attacked by another student at Celebration and fought back.

"I knew I was going to have some type of punishment, but I didn't know it was going to be that excessive," she said.

A freshman at the time, Rebekah was initially suspended for 10 days.  Then, according to documents provided by the family, the principal recommended expulsion.

"Why would you recommend expulsion when this is her first fight, never been any situation before," her father, David Guerra, questioned.

The most recent numbers from the state show 80 percent of the students in Osceola County, who are suspended or sent to alternative schools are black or Hispanic. The same group makes up 70 percent of the student population.

In Orange County, the largest district in central Florida, 85 percent of students disciplined are black or Hispanic, while they make up 60 percent of the population.

"She falls into a pattern that I've observed for over a decade," said attorney Jerry Girley.

Girley has filed a civil rights complaint on behalf of the family, claiming Rebekah was unfairly disciplined because she's black.

A letter obtained by 9 Investigates shows the U.S. Department of Education is now looking into the case.

District leaders said in an email they would not discuss the issue because of the complaint.

Rebekah said all she wants is to "be treated fairly."

The U.S. Department of Education has recognized this as an issue nationwide. In fact, federal officials proposed $50 million in grants for schools willing to come up with better discipline strategies to keep the numbers down.

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