By Barbara Liston
ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - A federal lawsuit against a Florida school district alleges two black women who scored well on an adult skills test in 2010 were accused of cheating because, they were told, "you people don't score that high."
The lawsuit, filed in Ocala on April 20 and announced Monday by the Florida Civil Rights Association, which is representing Lelia Jackson-Burch, alleged violations of civil rights, defamation and false imprisonment.
"Not only did the racially charged statement offend Plaintiff (Jackson-Burch), the manner in which it was stated reveals a level of comfort and bigotry that is usually reserved for private embrace," the lawsuit states.
FCRA president J. Willie David told Reuters that the civil rights group hopes to discover through the lawsuit whether a racist attitude is widespread within the Citrus County school system in west-central Florida where the incident occurred.
The lawsuit comes at a time of heightened racial tension in central Florida following the February 26 shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a white, Hispanic neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, in the town of Sanford, barely 80 miles south-east of Ocala.
Jackson-Burch could not be reached for comment. A spokeswoman for the Citrus County School District said all executives were in a meeting, and none returned a call for comment.
The lawsuit states that Jackson-Burch and Aretha Thomas, who are relatives, took the Test for Adult Basic Education (TABE), an entrance exam for nursing school and other vocational training.
Three administrators at the Withlacoochee Technical Institute in Inverness on Florida's west coast accused the women of cheating, telling Thomas that they scored "too high," according to the lawsuit.
Calls for comment to the administrators named in the lawsuit, director Judy Johnson, and assistant director Denise Willis, and Helena Delgado, a test administrator, were not returned. The lawsuit states that Willis and Johnson are white females and Delgado is a Hispanic female.
The lawsuit describes the alleged chronology of events: Willis explained the administrators' suspicions by saying "you people don't score that high." Although no other evidence of cheating was produced, the administrators demanded the women return their test scores and re-take the two-hour test. Jackson-Burch refused and got in her car but Johnson used her body to block the car from leaving. The administrators called 911.
Three deputies arrived, and Jackson-Burch allowed them to make a warrantless search of her cell phone, according to the lawsuit. In the subsequent sheriff's report, a deputy wrote that they found no evidence of cheating and that Jackson-Burch believed the incident was racially motivated, the lawsuit stated.
The administrators notified the Florida Department of Education, the Orange County School Board and Columbia College where Jackson-Burch had been a student for three years, that she had cheated, and refused to validate her TABE test score for eight months, causing her to miss out on a pre-planned nursing course, according to the lawsuit.
David said Thomas later accepted a $2,500 settlement from the Citrus County School Board but Jackson-Burch refused the offer.
The case is Burch v. School Board of Citrus County, Florida et al
(Editing by David Adams and Lisa Shumaker)