School buses. (iStockphoto)

The U.S. Education Department will investigate allegations of discrimination against African American students and students with disabilities in Richmond public schools.

The investigation by the department’s Office of Civil Rights follows a complaint filed in August on behalf of two students and the Richmond chapter of the NAACP, by the Legal Aid Justice Center and the ACLU of Virginia. The complaint alleged that the school system’s discipline policies unfairly punish students who are black and students with disabilities more harshly than others.

It cited state statistics that black students with disabilities were nearly 13 times as likely as non-disabled white students to be punished with short-term suspensions in the 2014-2015 school year.

Kenita Bowers, a spokeswoman for the school system, said they are “very concerned and focused on the disproportionate disciplinary actions” and the district, with help from the Virginia Department of Education, was providing extra professional development to staff in key areas. She wrote that the administration “is working diligently to ensure that all disciplinary actions are fair and consistent.” The student handbook had been revised to move away from zero tolerance to discipline to a tiered model that takes into account factors such as the nature of the violation, the student’s age and previous disciplinary record.

Bowers wrote in an email that they are pursuing partnerships and other resources to help staff work with children who have been through trauma, to reduce suspensions and enhance a school climate conducive to learning, and building a plan to teach social skills for all students, including extra support for some.

A letter from OCR officials noted that opening an investigation “in no way implies that OCR has made a determination on the merits of the allegations.”

Nearly 4,700 students were suspended in 2015-2016, the report said. Although black students make up 75 percent of the total enrollment, it said, they accounted for 90 percent of those given short-term suspensions and 94 percent of those given long-term suspensions.

The complaint also alleges that although students with disabilities made up 17.7 percent of the student population, they accounted for 29.8 percent of students who were suspended short-term and 37.4 percent of students who were suspended long-term.

“We are certainly grateful that they are doing this investigation, and undertaking it in a responsive and serious manner,” said Leslie Chambers Mehta, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia.

Rachael Deane of the Legal Aid Justice Center said the complaint had been filed before the start of this school year, “and unfortunately we have continued to see the same overuse of exclusionary discipline. Clients continue to stream into our office.”

A spokesman for the Education Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon.