Public lends voice to complaint about Durham suspensions

Aug. 22, 2013 @ 10:11 PM

Most comments during Thursday’s Durham Public Schools board meeting favored a federal complaint filed earlier this year that claims that district policies yield a disproportionate suspension of minority students, particularly black males and black students with disabilities.

Speakers at the Board of Education meeting asked the board to revisit the policy that allows for the suspensions and that the board include the segment of the population most affected by the policy in the discussions on how to improve it.

Two who gave comments were Denise and Larry Hester of the Durham Business Chain. Denise said that the DBC was not in search of punitive measures to right this systemic wrong, but instead seeks a “corrective measure” to put the policy in line with the district’s stated goals.

“No matter how well-meaning or well-funded, it has yielded disproportionate results,” Denise Hester said.

“As a community, we cannot afford to lose one more child to dropouts or the legal system,” Larry Hester said. “We hope that the resolution of this complaint includes input from the most affected community and that community input be sought in the resolution.”

He also asked that a neutral party be allowed to review suspensions, that suspensions be used as a last resort and that cultural bias be removed.

Legal Aid of North Carolina and the Civil Rights Project of UCLA filed a complaint earlier this year against Durham Public Schools with the federal Department of Education for the disproportionate number of suspensions of black students and students with disabilities.

The complaint states that DPS violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 through its suspension practices. 

The complaint alleges that black students, especially those with disabilities, are four times as likely as white students to be suspended. The complaint continues, noting that the number of DPS suspensions have increased over the past two years, with a 25 percentage point racial gap between suspended black females with disabilities and white females with disabilities.

Those levying the complaint say that they want to “encourage the district to adopt new non-discriminatory policies and practices that use out-of-school suspensions only as a last resort” within the 27-page complaint.

The district revised its current suspension and expulsion policy on June 27. The policy allows for contested, long-term suspensions to go before appeals hearing panels.

Nia Wilson, executive director of the SpiritHouse, said that she has spent more than five years working to address the so-called school-to-prison pipeline and sees the district’s suspensions as a part of that pipeline.

“Oftentimes suspensions and the introduction to the criminal justice system begins in the schools,” Wilson said. “I hope that the board is willing to meet with those of us who are ready to craft a solution.”

On Aug. 22, a supplement was filed to the current complaint. It was written on behalf of an 8-year-old DPS student and his mother, sharing their recent suspension experience.

DPS parent Angela Thornton, not specifically named in the original complaint or supplement, said that her 10-year-old son was suspended four times last year. Her son dealt with bullying in the fourth grade. That bullying escalated in the 5th grade, she said, resulting in her son being involved in altercations with other students.

Thornton said that among her concerns about her son’s suspensions is that she was alerted to pick her son up immediately from school, which is a problem for single parents who may have limited flexibility with their ability to leave their job. There was no conference or meeting as to why her son was suspended, she said, or why some students were not. She didn’t know why none of his school work was sent home, although she had requested it, she said.

“He’s in a charter school now and doing well,” she said of her son. “He was in therapy this summer and he’s doing well.”

Another concerned Durham citizen and parent, Tia Hall, spoke in support of the lawsuit.

“This is for the overall health of our community,” she said. “It troubles my heart, troubles many of us and we ask for a seat at the table, an empowered seat at the table, to help develop a solution.”