*Watch Part 2 of this 8News Investigation here.*
Henrico, VA—An 8News investigation reveals that African American students with disabilities are more likely to be suspended from Henrico Public Schools than any other group.
Although thousands of students are suspended from Henrico schools each year, a national report from UCLA revealed the discrepancy in black disabled student suspensions in the 2009-2010 school year (download full report here).
In 2011, 76 percent of students suspended from Henrico Public Schools were Black. Although some parents have been complaining about the inconsistent suspension rates for years, state leaders are now demanding answers after the revelation of these startling statistics.
A letter sent to Henrico Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Patrick Russo from Virginia State Senator A. Donald McEachin and Henrico Board of Supervisors member Rev. Tyrone Nelson expresses concern over disproportionately-suspended Black students.
"We have been concerned that disproportionate numbers of African American students were suspended," states the letter, delivered October 12. "We are particularly dismayed that, according to your own statistics, African American students, when suspended, are given a hugely disproportionate number of days out of school, resulting in the large discrepancy. Needless to say, we are deeply disappointed and remain very concerned."
Parent and former Henrico Public Schools educator Kandise Lucas conveys a concern shared by many Henrico parents; that the aggressive suspensions don't help students: "Suspending is punitive. It is not rehabilitative. And when you suspend a child who doesn't want to be in school anyway…that's also a reward."
Lucas has been voicing her concerns over the way Henrico County Schools discipline students since 2007. "As opposed to really working with the students to give them the social skills and support them, there was more of a punitive approach--specifically for children of color."
Attorney Charlotte Hodges wasn't surprised by the finding of the UCLA study: she represents 19 families with 24 children who have been suspended or expelled from Henrico schools. All of the families believe their child's race, disability, or both were factors in the suspensions.
"It's not so much what parents are telling me…let me be clear: it's actually what I have seen," says Hodges.
The UCLA report shows 91.7 percent of Black males with disabilities and 58.4 percent of Black females with disabilities were suspended one or more times during the 2009-2010 school year. In comparison, Henrico suspended 44 percent of White males, and only 18 percent of White females with disabilities during that time period.
"We're talking students who are deemed special needs because they have Asperger's, because they have ADHA, because they have severe autism, even some of them who have extreme emotional disorders," Hodges explains.
She believes the high suspension rates are due to classrooms that aren't prepared to work with special needs children.
"They might not have that aide who is trained and can de-escalate, they might not have that child in a proper classroom setting." Hodges adds, "They might not have someone who can deal appropriately with that child."
Another problem in these situations: teachers and staff who don't follow the Individualized Education Plan—or IEP—for each special needs student. Each IEP contains a checklist and step-by-step behavior intervention plan for teachers and staff to follow.
"A lot of times the schools aren't following those steps, and you end up with a lot of these kids who are just kicked out of school," says Hodges. As a result, she says she's representing a kindergartner with disabilities who was suspended a dozen times before he was finally expelled and sent to an alternative school.
When some parents complain to the schools about the suspensions, Hodges says they have been retaliated against. "I have some parents who have been banned from Henrico County schools."
Henrico County Public Schools leaders say that they are working on lowering suspension rates, although last year's suspension rates remained high. The school system sent this statement to 8News:
"We are proud of our record in enacting effective programs to reduce discipline. We must now transition to the next phase of our work, from overall discipline reduction to a more targeted approach."
Henrico Public Schools officials also say they will present a plan to address the high suspension rates among Black students at a school board meeting, slated for November 8.
Stay with 8News for updates.
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