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Black students file civil rights complaint against Richmond schools over discipline practices

A new civil rights complaint alleges that a Virginia school district’s discipline practices are discriminatory. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman, File)

Attorneys filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education on the behalf of two black students in Richmond Public Schools, alleging the district’s discipline practices — which push hundreds of black students out of classrooms as punishment for bad behavior — are discriminatory.

The Legal Aid Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union filed the complaint Wednesday on behalf of two black middle school students and the Richmond branch of the NAACP. It spells out the disparities in how black and white students are treated, with black students facing suspension rates more than five times higher than their white peers. Black students with disabilities, like the two students who filed the complaint, face even higher suspension and expulsion rates, according to the filing: 25 percent of black students with disabilities in the school system faced short-term suspensions in 2014-2015, 13 times the rate of white students without disabilities.

“It’s such a stark difference … that does not suggest that this is simply because of differences in behavior,” said Leslie Mehta, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia.

Read the complaint filed by the ACLU and the Legal Aid Justice Center

A spokeswoman for Richmond Public Schools said officials already have taken steps to reform the school system’s disciplinary practices, moving away from zero-tolerance policies, for example, and creating a “tiered model” that more clearly defines how educators should deal with problematic student behavior based on the student’s grade level and the severity of the infraction.

“Based on the filing of this complaint, we await contact from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) and we will fully cooperate to provide any necessary information to facilitate the investigation,” schools spokeswoman Kenita Bowers said. “Our goal is to find disciplinary measures that balance safety and instruction, so we welcome any dialogue that promotes both equity and quality in the education of our students.”

The U.S. Education Department receives thousands of civil rights complaints annually but investigates just a fraction of them. If an investigation finds violations of federal civil rights law, the department can issue recommendations and threaten to withhold federal funding if districts fail to correct the violations.

The Legal Aid Justice Center and the ACLU hope to press the school system — where about 75 percent of the 24,000 students are black — into reforming its student conduct code, which the groups allege are vague and lead officials to apply them unevenly. They also hope to compel the district to change its disciplinary practices and to make discipline data available so its progress can be monitored.

The complaint found that Richmond suspended students at far higher rates than districts statewide. One Richmond middle school issued long-term suspensions — which keep students out of class for more than 10 days — to 71 students in the 2014-2015 school year. That same year, Fairfax County, which serves more than 180,000 students, issued 98 long-term suspensions in all of its schools.

The complaint pinned the high suspension rates — which experts say can contribute to academic failure and increase the likelihood that a student will drop out — on the district’s failure to implement positive behavior interventions, an approach intended to stave off behavior problems by reinforcing lessons about good behavior. The district, according to the complaint, also failed to take into account a student’s disabilities when evaluating them for punishment. Mehta said the district is too quick to suspend students for minor offenses rather than to find alternatives that could keep them in school or in the classroom.

The students in the complaint are identified only by their initials. The first, a 13-year-old boy with emotional disabilities, left his classroom to find his teacher, according to the complaint. When a security guard confronted him, he balled up his fists. The guard restrained him on the ground and pressed against a leg on which the boy had recently had surgery; he inadvertently kicked the guard and was later handcuffed by police officers. The boy needed medical treatment for facial injuries as a result of the confrontation. He was later recommended for expulsion and went three weeks without any schooling — including a week when he sat with a counselor but no teacher at an alternative school. The boys’ expulsion was overturned on appeal.

The other student, a 12-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome and Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, was suspended twice after confrontations with staff and students. But prior to his suspensions, his mother had repeatedly attempted to meet with school administrators to discuss her sons’ disabilities. He was reassigned to an alternative school. A central office administrator later overturned the reassignment and he was allowed to return to the middle school.

The Richmond school district is among the worst-performing in Virginia: In 2014-2015, it had the highest dropout rate and came in near the bottom on standardized test passage rates.