RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Two students and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have filed an anti-discrimination complaint against Richmond Public Schools with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
RPS’ discipline policies punish African-American students and students with disabilities more harshly and more frequently than their peers, the complaint asserts. During the 2014-15 school year, African-American students with disabilities were 12.91 times more likely than white students without disabilities to be short-term suspended, according to data provided by the Virginia Department of Education.
The complainants are represented by the Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren program and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.
During the 2014-15 school year, African-American students made up about 76 percent of the total student population in RPS but were issued 93 percent of short-term suspensions, 98 percent of long-term suspensions, and 97 percent of expulsions. African-American students were 5.69 times more likely than white students to be short-term suspended.
“As outlined in the complaint, many of the suspensions we are talking about are for nonviolent, relatively minor behavior,” explained Rachael Deane, an attorney with JustChildren.
Additionally, students with disabilities were 2.77 times more likely than students without disabilities to be short-term suspended. Students with disabilities made up 16 percent of the student population but were issued 31 percent of short-term suspensions, 30 percent of long-term suspensions, and 63 percent of expulsions.
“Students affected by these policies are less likely to graduate on time, are often unsupervised during the day and have a higher potential for lower test scores,” said Leslie Mehta with the Virginia ACLU.
Last August, the Virginia Department of Education sent a letter to RPS superintendent Dr. Dana Bedden explaining that their analysis found “significant discrepancies” in disabled students being suspended or expelled compared to their non-disabled peers.
The complaint calls for alternative approaches to discipline that would address instances of student misconduct while improving overall school climate. It argues that Richmond Public Schools could eliminate discrimination and more effectively ensure safe and orderly schools through the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, social and emotional learning programs and restorative justice processes.
“The (current) policies are exceedingly vague,” Deane added.
School board member Tichi Pinkney Epps says the board will discuss the concerns raised in the complaint.
“It is incumbent upon us to our school board members, the superintendent and the staff that he supervises to take those items into consideration,” Eppes said.
Spokesperson Kenita D. Bowers also released the following statement on behalf of Richmond Public Schools:
It is unfortunate that this complaint was not shared with the school district in a more timely manner to allow us the opportunity to demonstrate the efforts that have already taken place to address many of these concerns. Given that the trend of discipline data is a local and national issue, the school district continuously conducts reviews to ensure appropriate outcomes.
It is important to note that Richmond Public Schools is working diligently to ensure that all disciplinary actions are fair and consistent. The Student Code of Responsible Ethics (SCORE) Handbook was revised to move away from zero tolerance based discipline. As part of these guidelines, faculty and staff consider factors such as the nature/seriousness of the violation, the student’s age, the student’s previous disciplinary record, and any other relevant circumstances when determining the most appropriate disciplinary interventions/consequences. A tiered model of intervention was implemented to clearly define which disciplinary action can be taken based upon grade level and behavior.
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. 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.