Richmond Schools Sued Over Discriminatory Discipline

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons)

The attorneys for two black middle school students who attend Richmond Public Schools have filed a civil rights accusation with the US Department of Education that alleges the district pushes hundreds of black students out of the classroom as punishment for behaving badly. The complaint also says this practice is discriminatory.

The Washington Post's Moriah Balingit reports the Legal Aid Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union filed the complaint on Wednesday on behalf of the students and the Richmond NAACP. It includes the allegation that black pupils face suspensions over five times more often than their white classmates. If a black child has disabilities, as do the two plaintiffs, he or she faces even higher expulsion and suspension rates.

"It's such a stark difference … that does not suggest that this is simply because of differences in behavior," said Leslie Mehta, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia.

An RPS spokesperson, Kenita Bowers, said steps have already been taken to reform disciplinary models and move away from zero-tolerance policies. As an example, she used the "tiered model" that defines how educators should manage problematic behavior based on the pupil's grade level and the seriousness of the breach.

If the US DoE finds any violations of federal civil rights law, it can withhold federal funding from the district.

The lawyers say that the district's policies are incongruous because of subjective interpretations of a code of conduct described as "a disorganized and internally inconsistent assortment of narrative, lists, and charts."

Because of these vague definitions of what constitutes a violation and missing instructions for staff, the mainly black school system has more frequently and more severely disciplined black pupils and those with disabilities, writes K. Burnell Evans for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

"It's more than a child being suspended — we have deep-rooted issues within our school system that need to be reformed," said Lynetta Thompson of the Richmond branch of the NAACP, which jointly filed the complaint.

The filing includes two incidents when students were reassigned unnecessarily from their home schools to the inadequate alternative school. One student confronted a school security guard while he was looking for his teacher and was restrained and suspended. Another young person with ADHD and Asperger's syndrome was suspended without the staff offering behavioral assessment and an intervention plan.

Richmond School Board member Tichi Pinkney Eppes, the only board representative at the Wednesday press conference, said:

"We cannot overstate the seriousness of these issues," she said. "I think we are all aware that these are problems, and we need to work to find solutions."

During the 2014-2015 school year, reports WRIC-TV, black students made up 76% of the student population in RPS. But they received 93% of the short-term suspensions and 98% of the long-term suspensions. They also had 97% of the expulsions.

Even though the charges are being made in Richmond, according to the Legal Aid Justice Center the problem is statewide, says Mallory Noe-Payne of WVTF Public Radio. Black students in Virginia are roughly four times as apt to be suspended than their fellow students who are white.

A lawyer for the plaintiffs, Rachael Deane, said:

"We simply don't have any evidence showing that there are actual disparities in student misconduct and in incidences of student misconduct," Deane said. "What we do have are data showing tremendous disparities based on race and disability with no explanation for it."

Those who are assisting the students hope an investigation by federal officials will occur and lead to revisions in the district's disciplinary policies.

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