An agreement reached as a result of a 2013 federal complaint filed against the Durham Public Schools could mean more even-handed punishment for black students and those with disabilities.
The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) by Advocates for Children’s Services (ACS) of Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project of UCLA, alleged that DPS engaged in discriminatory discipline practices
It was filed on behalf of students affected by a large disparity in suspensions, which ACS charged violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives federal funds or other federal financial assistance.
The complaint also charged that DPS violated Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal financial assistance.
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“For students, it’s a positive that OCR has investigated the complaint and acknowledged disparities,” said Aisha Forte, a staff attorney at ACS. “The resolution agreement outlines action steps to address those disparities, but it’s still important for parents, students and others to be at the table to make sure DPS follows through on what’s in the agreement.”
DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said the school district will comply with the action steps outlined in the resolution agreement.
“OCR has noted the positive steps we have made to date, including our community task force’s revision of our Code of Student Conduct and the creation of our Office of Equity Affairs,” Mubenga said in a statement. “As superintendent, I am focused on academic success and excellent schools for every student. We are happy to comply with the resolution agreement to foster equity in academic achievement and fair disciplinary practices.”
But principals handed down 42 percent more short-term suspensions, those lasting fewer than 10 days, in 2016-17, the first year they operated under the code revisions.
The code revisions no longer mandates suspensions for offenses such as plagiarism, dress-code violations, minor disruptive behavior or possession of cell phones or tablets such as iPads.
Javonia Lewis, a DPS parent and member of the Education Committee of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, said the organization will continue to watch DPS closely.
“We are glad the district is acknowledging this problem and open to taking action,” Lewis said. “However, if DPS truly wants to make things better for black and brown children, it will be important to ensure that students and parents of color have a meaningful voice at the table. We are eager to work with the district to bring about the systemic changes needed to make DPS a place where all children can learn and thrive.”
The OCR will continue to monitor the agreement through at least Sept. 1, 2019.
Here are a list of the “action steps” DPS must take under the agreement:
▪ Appoint a discipline supervisor to oversee discipline practices across the district.
▪ Develop a discipline action plan to ensure discipline referrals and consequences are appropriately and equitably applied regardless of race or disability status.
▪ Review and revise current student discipline policies with input from OCR.
▪ Ensure robust data collection and self-monitoring.
▪ Provide ongoing training to district staff regarding fair and equitable imposition of discipline.
▪ Improve guidelines and data collection for school police.
▪ Engage community stakeholders in the process.
▪ Review alternative school placement procedures.
The steps are intended to end practices that Forte said resulted in black students and those with disabilities being pushed out of school and into the court system at much higher rates than their white and non-disabled classmates.
“In addition to being unlawful, these exclusionary discipline practices harm individual students and the overall school community,” Forte said. “We hope that this resolution agreement will stop the flow of children into Durham's school-to-prison pipeline and bring about meaningful and lasting change in the district.”
Tajuana Parker, a DPS parent who spoke to OCR about her experiences with DPS during the lengthy investigation, said parents want teachers and administrators who will support their children and fight for them.
“Instead of pushing my son to reach his full potential, it too often feels like they are spending their time and energy finding ways to push him out of school,” Parker said.