Durham schools to open center for suspended students with disabilities

jalexander@newsobserver.comOctober 22, 2013 

— In a settlement with Legal Aid of North Carolina, Durham Public Schools will improve services to middle and high school students with disabilities who have been suspended.

The Short-Term Suspension Intervention Program comes after Advocates for Children’s Services, a statewide project of Legal Aid, said the school district had violated the rights of a middle-school student with a disability.

The student was suspended for 34 school days during 2012-13 – nearly 20 percent of the school year – and received no educational services while he was out of school, said Advocates for Children’s Services attorney Peggy Nicholson.

Under state and federal education law, schools must serve students with disabilities during suspensions if the student has been suspended for more than 10 school days during a school year, according to the agency.

“We’ve represented several students in Durham Public Schools who have suffered similar violations and suspected the problem was not limited to one school or student,” Nicholson said in a news release. “It is incredibly difficult for these students to catch back up after missing so many days and they return to school unprepared, further behind, and without adequate behavior interventions and supports.”

The complaint, filed with the state Department of Public Instruction, “highlighted that Durham Public Schools didn’t have any policies to address these issues,” Nicholson said in an interview Tuesday.

Advocates for Children’s Services has also filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in April, saying the Durham Public Schools suspends black and disabled students at disproportionately high rates.

According to the complaint, 17 percent of disabled students were suspended in 2009-10, versus 8.4 percent of non-disabled students; 14.1 percent of black students were suspended versus 3.3 percent of white students.

The federal complaint remains under investigation.

‘A great start’

“We think it is a really great start,” Nicholson said of the new intervention program. “We hope parents will take advantage of it to negate the harm of the suspensions. However, Durham Public Schools still has a long way to go to address the issue of black students being suspended at a disproportionately higher rate.”

Durham attorney Mark Trustin, who represents families of students suspended from public schools across the Triangle, said the Durham Public Schools’ announcement is overdue.

“Successive short-term suspension can result in a loss of school time to the point where they miss a year of school,” he said. “This is particularly true with kids who have difficulty learning.”

Trustin said most parents don’t realize they can speak up and change things.

“I don’t believe that it is anybody’s intent to mistreat children,” Trustin said. “But I do think school officials take advantage of what parents don’t know about their rights so that school officials don’t have to do more than what they are already doing, taking the extra steps.”

The full-day intervention program, to start by Nov. 4, will be held on the Lakeview Middle School campus and will be staffed by a “highly qualified special education teacher,” Deborah Polen-Pitman, assistant superintendent for student family and community services, said in a statement. Breakfast and lunch will be offered.

The settlement agreement requires the school system to provide information about the new program to parents of eligible students, and requires the student’s base school to send assignments to the program. The school system will review the program quarterly.

“The Short-Term Intervention Center is aligned with our district’s strategic plan, which emphasizes alternatives to suspension,” Polen-Pitman said. “It’s also consistent with our commitment to providing safe school environments while keeping all of our students academically engaged, including students with disabilities.”

The program will not serve elementary students with disabilities. Instead, the settlement requires holding a meeting of an elementary student’s Individualized Education Program team as soon as possible after a suspension to determine how to provide required services.

Alexander: 919-932-2008

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