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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

North Carolina Schools Discipline Rate Probed By Feds: Black Students

Discipline Rate Of Black Students In Del., Elsewhere Is Probed

The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights is investigating whether Black Male Students are punished disproportionately in the Christina School District in Wilmington and Newark, one of five districts nationwide under scrutiny for its discipline record.

Federal investigators are in the process of visiting all of Christina's schools and have requested detailed discipline data for at least the last two academic years.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan first mentioned districts were being investigated at a conference in late September hosted by the Department of Education's Civil Rights office and the Department of Justice's Civil Rights division.

Besides Delaware, the school districts under review are in New York, North Carolina, Utah and Minnesota.

CIVIL RIGHTS: Education Dept. sees spike in complaints

One of the other districts, the San Juan School District in rural Utah, is being investigated for alleged gender disparities without respect to race or ethnicity, according to a school official.

Christina district officials acknowledged that a Disparity exists in the discipline rates for Black Male students that they are working to correct, according to district spokeswoman Wendy Lapham. She added that the district has been cooperating with the federal investigation.

Statewide, Black students made up about 32% of the public school population last year, but they accounted for about 55% of students who were suspended or expelled, according to an analysis by The News Journal published in June that compared discipline statistics provided by the state to school enrollments.

The discipline rates for all students in Delaware are higher than the national average: 21,690 of the state's 126,801 students — about one in six — were suspended or expelled in the 2009-2010 school year, which is down slightly from the year before. Those numbers include in-school suspensions. Counting only expulsions and out-of-school suspensions, the number dips to 14,368 students, or about one in nine.

The Christina School District had the highest rate among the state's 19 school districts in the 2008-2009 and the 2007-2008 school years. However, the district's numbers went down in almost every school in 2009-2010.

Lapham said the decrease is the result of an effort to better train teachers, help students learn to deal with conflicts and the elimination of a zero-tolerance policy.

She said the district has been analyzing its data internally and has been "working to address any issues of Disparity by working with teachers at the classroom level, increasing training for para-professionals, reviewing and discussing data at the school level and significantly reducing suspensions and expulsions."

In 2009, a 6-year-old boy brought a Boy Scout tool to a Christina school to eat his pudding at lunch. Under the district's zero-tolerance policy, the boy faced a punishment of suspension or expulsion. The policy did not allow educators to make a punishment judgment call based on the context of the incident or age of the child.

But after public outcry and widespread media attention, the school board decided to amend its policy as it pertained to kindergarten and first-grade students.

Parents and officials point to that outcome when they complained about Christina's high rate of punishment among black males. The 6-year-old was white.

Wanda Stanley said she read about the boy's case with interest because her 11-year-old daughter was expelled after a box cutter fell out of her jacket pocket at Pulaski Elementary School in Wilmington. The girl did not know how the box cutter got in her pocket and had no intention of hurting anyone, her mother said. Police were notified by the school but did not file charges.

School officials told her there was no room for debate about the expulsion because of the district's zero-tolerance policy, Stanley said. From her perspective, Stanley saw that a white boy went unpunished while her Black Daughter was put out of school.

"I am hurt because I know my daughter is totally innocent and I don't want this to follow my daughter through her schooling," Stanley said.

The district and state boards of education ruled that the expulsion was justified. The district's board amended the zero-tolerance policy further last school year.

A complaint against the school board is pending before the state Human Relations Commission, alleging that the district discriminated against Stanley's daughter on the basis of age and race.

Studies show that Minorities are punished at higher rates than their peers, but there's not evidence that these children misbehave more, said Dan Losen, a former teacher who now works for the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

The government under President George W. Bush did not investigate many schools for these issues, which are now getting attention under the Obama administration, he said.

Typically, reviews from the Office of Civil Rights are used to help districts find solutions and to monitor progress, Losen said, because "the preference has historically been to enter into a joint problem-solving approach rather than issuing violations."

Helen Spacht, principal at Christina's Wilson Elementary, said programs like the district's Day of Caring help reinforce the importance of kindness and how to treat others with respect. The school is certified under the Anti-Defamation League's No Place for Hate program, which means staff and students have undergone training on diversity issues. Also, teachers have been meeting to share ideas and literature on better classroom and bullying management, she said.

"It's really changing the strategies and how they work with students," she said.

But the district has not made enough progress in dealing with these issues, said New Castle Councilman Jea Street, who organized a rally in April to protest the discipline rates.

"The fact is that (the office of civil rights) is once again going to have to do what local officials refuse to do," Street said. "Nobody would listen to me when I claimed Christina was discriminating when it changed policy to accommodate one child and knew full well that the same policy had been used overzealously for others."

Court: Suspended N.C. Students Can Go Unschooled

North Carolina’s Constitution guarantees children an opportunity for a basic education, but doesn’t require alternative schooling for students suspended for misbehavior, the state Supreme Court ruled Friday.

While local school boards are required by state law to establish at least one alternative learning program for students serving long-term suspensions, school administrators are not required to accommodate every suspended student, the court ruled.

“Because the safety and educational interests of all students receiving alternative education must be protected, students who exhibit violent behavior, threaten staff or other students, substantially disrupt the learning process, or otherwise engage in serious misconduct may be denied access,” Justice Mark Martin wrote for the court.

The case started with a fistfight outside a rural high school in January 2008 and attracted the attention of groups ranging from Civil Rights Advocates to school administrators to education groups from Alabama to Chicago.

Viktoria King and Jessica Hardy were sophomore students at Southside High School in Chocowinity when a melee led to sheriff’s deputies handcuffing and briefly arresting a dozen students.

The two girls were suspended from school for the rest of the semester and told they could not attend Beaufort County’s alternative school for troubled students.

Attorneys for the girls argued that violated the state constitution’s right to a public education. North Carolina’s top court ruled in a school funding case in 1997 that the Constitution gives each child a right to a “sound basic education.”

But that doesn’t mean protecting students from the consequences of their own misconduct, Martin wrote.

“A critical distinction exists between the state uniformly denying students in low-income districts access to a sound basic education and the state offering all students a sound basic education but temporarily removing students who engage in misconduct that disrupts the sound basic education of their peers,” Martin wrote.

The court did rule school administrators must explain why they denied a suspended student any alternatives, sending the case back to lower courts for further action.

King’s mother eventually paid for a home tutor during her semester-long suspension, while Hardy received no schooling until later entering the local alternative school, The Star-News of Wilmington reported in March.

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Sources: Schott Report, UCLA, USA Today, U.S. Dept Of Education Office Of Civil Rights, WRAL, Youtube, Google Maps

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