BY JIM WISE Published: Apr 20, 2013 07:00 PM Modified: Apr 20, 2013 03:49 PM
Two organizations have filed a complaint against Durham Public Schools with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, alleging that the school system’s out-of-school 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 April 16 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.
“It’s something we’re concerned about, and I expect our district will be very cooperative with the Office of Civil Rights and will work with them any way we can to improve the way we apply our policies,” School Board Chairwoman Heidi Carter said.
“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 the district to issue a formal agreement to change its suspension policies.
“We will review it carefully when we receive it,” said Durham Public Schools spokesman Chip Sudderth.
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 misbehavior, such as unexcused absences and dress-code violations. 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.
• Seventeen 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.
Carter said the complain surprised her, and while the data may suggest that policies are applied unfairly, “It could mean other things. … I don’t believe there’s an intentional effort in our school system to over-suspend” black and disabled students.
“I think our discipline policy is pretty good,” Carter said. “We want to discourage the use of out-of-school suspension except in situations where the safety of our students and our staff are threatened or for behaviors that are a substantial disruption to the learning environment.”
Durham schools do, though, have room for improvement in their use of out-of-school suspension, Carter said.
“The board has a goal to decrease out of school suspensions for all students, because kids can’t learn if they’re not in school … and a