The Legal Aid Justice Center and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia filed an administrative complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights on behalf of two Richmond Public School middlers with disabilities on Aug. 24.
As a public school division, RPS receives federal funding from the U.S. Department of Education and is thus subject to all non-discrimination laws enforced by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR). The complaint asks the OCR to investigate RPS’ discipline policies and practices, and to require the division to adopt adequate remedies.
“The basis of the complaint is that the discipline policies of Richmond Public Schools punish African American students and students with disabilities more harshly and more frequently than their peers,” said Legal Aid Justice Center attorney Rachael Deane in a joint press conference announcing the filing.
The two African-American RPS students are presented in the complaint as J.R. and A.L., who allege the RPS’ discipline policies and practices have an adverse, disparate impact on African-American students and students with disabilities. The complaint states this is in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
“The complaint is alleged on their own behalf and on behalf of all similarly situated African-American students and students with disabilities,” Deane said.
During the 2014-15 school year, African-American students comprised 76 percent of the total student population, but were issued 93 percent of short-term suspensions, 98 percent of long-term suspensions and 97 percent of expulsions within RPS, according to data from the Virginia Department of Education.
Students with disabilities accounted for 16 percent of the student population, but were subject to 31 percent of short-term suspensions, 30 percent of long-term suspensions and 63 percent of expulsions. African-American students with disabilities were 12.91 times more likely than white students without disabilities to be short-term suspended, according to the Virginia Department of Education.
“These disparities cannot be explained by differences in student behavior,” Deane said. “Rather, there is overwhelming evidence that the school division’s discipline policies are excessively punitive and lack clear standards for application, leading to subjective interpretation and selective enforcement.”
The complaint summarizes the interactions of two RPS middle school students with disabilities, J.R. and A.L., with the school system’s disciplinary practices.
J.R. was a 13-year-old African-American student entering 8th grade at T.C. Boushall Middle School in 2015. J.R. is a student with emotional disabilities who is eligible to receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and he receives instruction in a special education classroom.
In April 2016, J.R. was performing a task for a teacher when the bell rang and his teacher exited the room. A new teacher confronted J.R. for being in the wrong place, and he left to find his teacher so he could get a pass.
J.R. was again confronted in the hallway, this time by a school security officer, and he became agitated. The officer physically restrained J.R., applying pressure to his leg which had just undergone surgery.
J.R. attempted to move his leg and made contact with the officer, who then moved him to the school office where he was once again restrained.
Administrators called the Richmond Police Department, and J.R. was handcuffed until his mother arrived. J.R. required medical attention for facial contusions resulting from being restrained on the ground.
J.R. was suspended and received no educational instruction for 13 days. He was then reassigned to Richmond Alternative School where he was placed in a classroom by himself a counselor.
When the counselor did not come to school one day in late April, J.R. was sent home.
J.R. was informed he could no longer attend Richmond Alternative School on May 1, because a hearing officer recommended expulsion.
J.R. was provided home-based services for approximately 10 hours a week until the end of school in mid-June. He successfully appealed the expulsion recommendation and will return to Richmond Public Schools this school year.
The second complainant, A.L., was a 12-year-old 6th grade student attending Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in 2015. A.L. is diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome, and is eligible for special services under a Section 504 plan.
Last summer, A.L.’s mother began reaching out to school administrators to ensure her son’s disabilities would be accommodated. The school did not arrange a meeting until more than six months later, after A.L. was suspended, in February 2016.
In early January 2016, A.L. was suspended for 10 days and referred for a superintendent’s hearing after an altercation with a staff member. RPS did not perform a Manifestation Determination Review to determine if the altercation was related to A.L.’s disabilities. A.L. was allowed to return to school nearly a month later on Feb. 1, 2016.
On or about Feb. 8, A.L. was involved in an altercation with another student and was suspended for five days. A month later, on or about March 8, A.L. was again suspended for five days after another altercation with a student.
Richmond Public Schools notified A.L.’s mother that her son would be reassigned to Richmond Alternative School about two weeks later — one day after school administrators met with A.L.’s mother to review a functional behavioral assessment and behavioral intervention plan.
A.L.’s mother arranged a meeting with school administrators to appeal the decision, but only one administrator showed up and the reassignment decision was upheld.
At the time of A.L.’s reassignment, he alleges neither he nor his mother were made aware such decisions could be appealed with the RPS Executive Director of Exceptional Education and Student Services.
Shortly after the failed reassignment meeting with the school administrator, A.L.’s mother formally appealed the decision and A.L. was allowed to return to Martin Luther King Jr. middle school.
SIMILARLY SITUATED STUDENTS
The OCR complaint is also filed on behalf of the Richmond branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
“The school division must conduct an unflinching examination of these disparities and adopt strategies to improve school climate and ensure that discipline policies are fair for all students,” said President of the Richmond NAACP Lynetta Thompson.
Among the 102 Virginia school divisions that issued short-term suspensions of at least 10 African-American and 10 white students, RPS has the eighth highest risk difference.
For the 2014-15 school year, the short-term suspension risk for African-American students was 16.26 percent, compared to 2.86 percent for white students — making African-American students 5.685 times more likely than white students to be short-term suspended.
Among the 123 Virginia school divisions that issued short-term suspensions to at least 10 students with disabilities and 10 without, RPS had the sixth highest risk difference at 12.48 percentage points.
Overall, during the 2014-15 school year, an African-American student with disabilities attending a Richmond Public School was 12.91 times more likely than a white student without disabilities to be short-term suspended.
“Suspensions hurt everyone. Students who are removed from school are at a greater risk of academic failure, dropping out, and becoming involved in the justice system,” said the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Deane. “We hope this complaint leads to a positive transformation within the city schools.”
Aside from the complainants’ narratives, the larger complaint also details inconsistencies and vague language in RPS disciplinary practices and procedures, and highlights the failure of the system regarding segregation, accreditation, graduation rates and Standards of Learning (SOL) scores.
The Richmond Public Schools student population was 74.73 percent African-American and 69.89 percent economically disadvantaged, as of Sept. 30, 2015.
“Overly punitive discipline policies damage the learning environment, deny African-American students and students with disabilities of their right to an education and push children into the school-to-prison pipeline,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Leslie Mehta.
Across Virginia, the public school population was 22.9 percent African-American and 38.92 percent economically disadvantaged. Similarly, RPS’ population of students with disabilities in 2015-16 was 17.7 percent, compared to 12.47 percent statewide.
“The ACLU is concerned about the wide disparities in the application of student discipline based on race and disability,” Mehta said.
Last spring, a wave of protests hit City Hall after Mayor Dwight Jones announced five high schools may be closed in light of a city-wide deficit.
Chad Ingold is a teacher at Open High School in Oregon Hill. Ingold’s school was one of the high schools responsible for organizing one of several protests.
“In regard to school segregation — separate but unequal is still the name of the game,” Ingold told the Commonwealth Times last spring. “Political and personal conflicts within city government are being played out, and have historically been played out, with schools, jobs, and the future of the children of our city as pawn pieces in that game.”
Executive Editor, Sarah King
Sarah is a senior studying political science and philosophy of law. She is a copyeditor for INK Magazine and reporter for the Capital News Service wire. Last spring, the Virginia Press Association awarded Sarah 3rd place for Public Safety Writing Portfolio and the Hearst Awards recognized her as the 4th place winner for Breaking News Writing. In April, Sarah was invited to the White House for the Administration’s innaugural College Reporter Day. She previously worked as an editorial intern for Congressional Quarterly Researcher and SAGE Business Researcher in Washington, D.C. // Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn