Complaint alleges suspension policy unfairly targets African American, disabled students

jwise@newsobserver.comApril 16, 2013 

— Two organizations have filed a complaint against Durham Public Schools with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, alleging that school system’s suspension policies disproportionately harm African American and disabled students.

Legal Aid of North Carolina’s Advocates for Children’s Services Project and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project of UCLA filed a complaint ( Tuesday that describes the experiences of two disabled African American students, but was filed on behalf of all disabled students “who are unjustly harmed by the district’s suspension policies,” according to a Legal Aid statement.

“The idea is not to vilify the school district but to work with them,” said Civil Rights Project Director Dan Losen. “Ultimately the idea is to get everybody on the same page ... to benefit kids.”

Department of Education spokesman David Thomas confirmed that the complaint had been received. The department’s Office of Civil Rights “will need to evaluate the complaint to determine whether the allegations are appropriate for OCR investigation,” he said.

The complaint claims that Durham Public Schools has violated federal civil-rights and rehabilitation acts. It describes the experiences of two particular students, identified only as “T.H.” and “N.B.,” but was filed on behalf of all disabled DPS students, and asks that the Office of Civil Rights investigate, and encourage DPS to issue a formal resolution agreement to change its suspension policies.

Durham Public Schools spokesman Chip Sudderth said the system did not have response yet.

“We haven’t received notification of the formal complaint from (the Office for Civil Rights) yet and we haven’t had the adequate time to review the information,” Sudderth said. Tuesday. “We will review it carefully when we receive it.”

In the complaint, Legal Aid and the Civil Rights Project claim that Durham Public Schools over-relies on suspensions, with students being punished and removed from school for minor misbehaviors such as unexcused absences and dress-code violation. Further, they state that within the Durham school system:

• In the 2009-2010 school year, 14.1 percent of black students were suspended at least once, but only 3.3 percent of white students;

• 17 percent of disabled students were suspended, but only 8.4 percent of students without disabilities;

• Frequent suspensions are associated with high dropout rates and students’ involvement with the justice system.

“(Suspended students) are obviously missing critical instructional time,” said Durham attorney Peggy Nicholson, who works with Legal Aid children’s services.

Suspension also does not deal with misbehavior associated with a disability, Nicholson said. “So they return to the classroom behind academically, with the behaviors still unaddressed and that has led to a lot of repeat suspensions.”

Civil-rights complaints frequently lead to agreements between the school system and the Education Department and/or with the particular complainants, she said, short of formal findings that laws have been broken.

Wise: 919-641-5895

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