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Race separating brother and sister in Polk schools? | News

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Race separating brother and sister in Polk schools?
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BARTOW, Florida -- Is race keeping a brother and sister from attending the same school? That's the question facing the Polk County School Board.

The students' parents have been fighting for weeks to get their kids in the same magnet school. For the family, it's not about race. They say it's simply about keeping the family together. However, school officials say it's more complicated than that.

"We think this continues to be just swept under the rug," says Chris McLaughlin. He and his wife, Stacey, are taking on the Polk County School Board to stand-up for their kids.

Rising first grader Trip and soon-to-be kindergartener Katie should attend the same school under normal county policy. However, now that Trip has gotten into the top-notch magnet school Lincoln Avenue Academy, a technicality means Katie can't go with him.

The issue is that Trip wasn't enrolled in Lincoln Avenue last school year and rising kindergarteners can only attend the same school if their older sibling was enrolled the previous year. It's a loophole that doesn't affect many students, but it has the McLaughlins upset.

Polk County School Board Chair Kay Fields told 10 News, "To me, diversity is just as important as family, in my opinion. You look at Lincoln Academy. Lincoln Academy is in a black community. So, to me, that's important. That's a part of diversity, and I think we have to look at all of it."

Polk County magnet schools get federal money, in part, because they were designed to be racially diverse, and school officials say extending sibling preference beyond the current standards could cut into that necessary diversity by reducing the number of spaces available for minority students.

School official Carol Bridges told the board, "We continue to be scrutinized by the Office of Civil Rights and the Department of Justice to make sure we maintain that value [of diversity]."

Rosemary Goudreau, an advocate for the McLaughlin family, responded, "They say if Polk stands up for its kids, Washington will pull its funding. Really? Washington is telling Polk County to stop admitting kindergarteners to magnet schools with their siblings?"

Still, after nearly 90 minutes of debate, school officials decided it's just too big an issue to settle in one night.

Board member Debra Wright noted, "It seems there are a multitude of issues that are surfacing by the moment."

Board member Hazel Sellers agreed "the exception would be a nightmare for us."

Visibly disappointed, the McLaughlins say they'll have to go home and explain this to their young daughter, "We say, 'Kate, we're fighting as hard as we can. We're doing everything we can.'"

The Polk County School Board and Superintendent Dr. Sherrie Nickell promised to deal with this before the next school year. Part of that will be reviewing school policies in Hillsborough County, where some claim the district has this issue figured out.

Any changes to Polk County policies could trigger a review from the Department of Justice and the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

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