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U.S. Department of Education to investigate claims of discrimination at Richmond schools

Published: Apr. 17, 2017 at 5:37 PM EDT|Updated: Apr. 18, 2017 at 8:34 AM EDT
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RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is launching an investigation into allegations that Richmond Public Schools' polices unlawfully discriminate against African-American students and students with disabilities.

The Legal Aid Justice Center and ACLU of Virginia made the announcement Monday, saying that during the investigation the Office for Civil Rights "will collect and analyze information from the complainants, the Richmond Public Schools, and any other relevant sources."

In August 2016, the Legal Aid Justice Center and ACLU had filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights on behalf of two students and Richmond's chapter of the NAACP. The complaint alleges that Richmond Public Schools' policies punish African-American students and students with disabilities more harshly and more frequently than other students.

The complaint says in 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 Virginia Department of Education data.

In a press release Monday, the ACLU also says:

New data has surfaced since the Complaint's filing indicating that RPS continues to exclude an astonishing number of students each school year and that troubling discipline disparities remain. According to Virginia Department of Education data, RPS suspended 4,680 students at least once during the 2015-16 school year. African-American students made up nearly 75 percent of the student population but 90.4 percent of students who were short-term suspended and 94.2 percent of students who were long-term suspended. While students with disabilities made up 17.7 percent of the student population, they accounted for 29.8 percent of students who were short-term suspended and 37.4 percent of students who were long-term suspended.

"We are confident that the OCR investigation will shed light on and bring corrective relief to systematic disparities based on race and disability in RPS' application of discipline," said Leslie Chambers Mehta, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. "This is a first step towards eradicating the school-to-prison pipeline in Virginia's capital city."

Congressman Donald McEachin released the following statement:

I wrote a letter requesting a federal investigation because the situation - both the number of suspensions and particularly the number of minority children suspended - compared to their numbers in the population is unacceptable. No child can learn when he or she is out on the street and that is just a recipe for trouble-making. Our goal must be to help each and every child reach his or her potential. If a child is disrupting a classroom, then we need a solution that is not suspension where no learning possibly takes place.

Mayor Levar Stoney released the following statement:

I stand with Congressman McEachin in supporting a full and open investigation by the Office of Civil Rights into these allegations.

Richmond Public Schools released a statement:

We are very concerned and focused on the disproportionate disciplinary actions as well as the representation of African Americans identified for special education. Richmond Public Schools, with assistance from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), has provided additional professional development to staff in key areas (e.g. cultural competence, dynamic assessments with mediated learning, exclusionary factors, multiple assessments, need for specially designed instruction and multi-tiered systems of support) that will assist eligibility committees in making appropriate determinations that are not inappropriately effected by the impact of cultural and/or environmental factors or economic disadvantage.

The current administration is working diligently to ensure that all disciplinary actions are fair and consistent. The Student Code of Responsible Ethics (SCORE) Handbook is continuously reviewed and has been revised to move away from zero tolerance based discipline. As part of these guidelines, faculty and staff now 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 has been implemented to clearly define which disciplinary can be taken based upon grade level and behavior.

We are always pursuing additional resources for trauma-informed care, as well as social and emotional support for our students, and truly appreciate our partnerships with organizations like SCAN, Child Savers, and VCU through funding from the Robins Foundation to ensure that our instructional staff are trained to recognize those signs. RPS also participated in the East End Trauma Initiative, prior to being awarded the grant from the Robins Foundation, which is a partnership with multiple groups working with our Armstrong Pyramid schools, to develop adult awareness and skills to work with students impacted by trauma. Additionally, RPS has engaged in partnership with the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) for the Virginia Tiered System of Supports (VTSS) Grant to enhance the implementation of positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) in the George Wythe Pyramid and Richmond Alternative School. RPS has and will continue to forge relationships with community partners to reduce suspensions but also to reduce office disciplinary referrals to enhance a school climate that is conducive to learning. Finally, we are developing a change action plan to infuse social skill instruction to all students with additional tiered supports for students who require additional support beyond the universal level.

We will continue to review our practices to ensure we are following our school board approved policies and guidelines set forth by the VDOE to address student behavior in an equitable and responsible manner.

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