Feds investigating Durham school suspension rates

jporter@newsobserver.comJune 21, 2013 

  • Read the complaint

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— The federal government has begun investigating a complaint that Durham Public Schools suspends black and disabled students at disproportionately high rates, a group that filed the complaint said Thursday.

Advocates for Children’s Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project of UCLA filed the complaint against DPS in April with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

In the 2009-2010 school year, 14.1 percent of black students were suspended while 3.3 percent of white students were; 17 percent of disabled students were suspended while 8.4 percent of non-disabled students were, according to the complaint.

It describes the experiences of two students identified only as “N.B.” and “T.H.” Both are black and both spent years in DPS; both were suspended from school repeatedly.

“N.B.,” a 17-year-old student diagnosed with several mental health issues, wasn’t evaluated for her eligibility for special education and related services by DPS until she was well into high school. “T.H.” has been diagnosed with behavioral disabilities; instead of addressing those issues which the complaint says contributed to his falling behind in school, “(his school) responded punitively with out-of-school suspension.”

“We are glad that OCR is taking this complaint seriously,” ACS attorney Peggy Nicholson said Thursday. “DPS’ discriminatory discipline practices, whether intentional or not, have devastating effects on students, families, and our entire community. This needs to be fully investigated so that Durham can begin to develop a systemic solution that adequately addresses this discrimination and reduces the use of harmful and unnecessary suspensions.”

In a statement Chip Sudderth, a spokesman for the Durham Public Schools, said: “DPS is fully cooperating with OCR in its investigation. We look forward to beginning the next school year in a spirit of inclusion and innovation that will help all of our students graduate prepared to succeed in college or career.”

Community concern

Suspension rates for minority students and students with disabilities has been a concern for some community members for years.

“This is a very significant failure of DPS to either train their administration and staff of requirements of federal and state laws, or an intentional neglect of those laws and regulations,” said Mark Trustin, a Durham attorney who represents families of students suspended from public schools across the Triangle. “What I find, and the reason for this complaint, is that schools fail to follow federal and state guidelines when considering suspension of kids with disabilities.”

In an interview Thursday, Trustin said principals have called him and asked what they should do.

“I’ve had one tell me the reason they did not evaluate and provide follow-up services for a student believed to be disabled was because school personnel were told there wasn’t enough money to cause such an evaluation to be done,” Trustin said. “And even if it were done, that there’s not enough money to oversee or secure those services for such a disabled youth. And that’s why they don’t.”

Trustin said he is surprised there is not more community outcry.

“Everyone knows that suspension leads to more suspensions, leads to dropping out,” he said. “Too many offenses in school are prosecuted in court as well, and the likelihood of that student committing other offenses becomes many times greater than that of the general population.”

“Each case represents a student for whom there is unnecessary humiliation,” Trustin said. “Days out of school they likely cannot afford to miss. Even correcting a problem takes a toll on every student. I’m not a bleeding heart about this. It’s simply a matter of following the law.”

Porter: 919-593-7884

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