ACLU: 2 students, Richmond NAACP file anti-discrimination lawsuit against RPS

Published: Aug. 24, 2016 at 3:28 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 24, 2016 at 9:56 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Two students and the local NAACP have filed an anti-discrimination lawsuit with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights against Richmond Public Schools.

The ACLU says RPS' discipline policies "punish African-American students and students with disabilities more harshly and more frequently than their peers." They go on saying African-American students with disabilities were 12.91 times more likely to be short term suspended than white students without disabilities.

The ACLU also claims that African-American students were 5.69 times more likely to be short-term suspended than white students, while students with disabilities were 2.77 times more likely to be short-term suspended than students without disabilities.

The data was gathered during the 2014-2015 school year, according to the ACLU.

The complaints were represented by the Legal Aid Justice Center's Just Program and the ACLU of Virginia. The complaints say the student code does not clearly define misconduct and "prescribes overly harsh consequences for relatively minor misbehavior."

Both organizations want federal officials to investigate Richmond Public Schools' disciplinary policies and force the school system to make changes - saying enough is enough.

"Make no mistake about it: This is about justice, equality and fairness for students," explains Leslie Mehta, ACLU Legal Director.

The complaint is filed on behalf of two students who are both African-American and dealing with disabilities. Attorneys for the middle-school-aged students say they were severely punished for non-violent offenses. One student was tackled by a security guard while looking for his teacher.

"Richmond stands out among all school division in Virginia in both sheer number of suspensions, both short-term and long-term, and expulsions – as well as the disproportionate number of suspension and other removal falling on African-American children and students with disabilities," said Rachael Deane, an attorney with the Legal Aide Justice Center.

The ACLU says it has the numbers to back these claims. During the 2014-2015 school year:

African-American students made up 76 percent of the student population but were issued

  • 93 percent of the short-term suspensions
  • 98 percent of the long-term suspensions
  • 97 percent of the expulsions

Students with disabilities made up 16 percent of the student population but were issued

  • 31 percent of the short-term suspensions
  • 30 percent of long-term suspensions
  • 63 percent of the expulsions

The Richmond NAACP says the numbers are troubling.

"The fact that we spend $130,000 to incarcerate a child and only $11,000 to educate - that right there shows the disparity and shows the priorities," said Richmond NAACP President Lynetta Thompson.

Instead of money, the parents of the students in the suit want changes, including more education and training for teachers and staff.

Wednesday evening, Richmond Public Schools released the following statement:

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.

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