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Complaint: Black students punished more harshly than whites

(AP) Black students and students with disabilities attending public schools in Virginia’s capital city are more severely and more frequently punished than their classmates, according to a complaint filed Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

The complaint brought by two students and a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People alleges that African-American students at Richmond Public Schools and those with mental, emotional or physical disabilities are more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled. The complaint urges federal officials to investigate the school systems’ disciplinary policies and force them to make changes.

“Make no mistake about it: This is about justice, equality, and fairness for students with disabilities, for those who are African-American and for both,” said Leslie Mehta, legal director of the ACLU of Virginia, which along with the Legal Aid Justice Center filed the complaint on behalf of the students and the Richmond chapter of the NAACP.

Kenita Bowers, a spokeswoman for the district, said school officials already have made efforts to address many of the concerns in the complaint. She said the district is “working diligently to ensure that all disciplinary actions are fair and consistent.”

“We await contact from the Office of Civil Rights and we will fully cooperate to provide any necessary information to facilitate the investigation,” Bowers said in a statement. “Our goal is to find disciplinary measures that balance safety and instruction, so we welcome any dialogue that promotes both equity and quality in the education of our students.”

The complaint claims that the Richmond schools’ disciplinary policies are too vague, causing teachers and administrators to overly punish certain students in violation of federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race and against people with disabilities.

Black students in Richmond schools were issued 97 percent of expulsions during the 2014-2015 school year even though they make up just 76 percent of the population, according to the ACLU and Legal Aid Justice Center. Black students with disabilities were nearly 13 times more likely to receive a short-term suspension than a white student without disabilities, the groups say. Short-term suspensions are those in which a student is barred from coming to school for no more than 10 school days.

Racial disparities in school punishment extend beyond Richmond, advocates say.

A recent report from the Legal Aid Justice Center, which looked at statewide data for the 2014-2015 school year, found that African-American students were nearly four times more likely than white students to be suspended.

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a similar complaint earlier this month alleging discrimination in an Alabama school district. Meanwhile, a 2015 study from the University of Pennsylvania found that suspension rates among black students in 132 school districts in 13 Southern states were at least five times higher than the share of the student population they represent.

“We know that reducing discipline disparities is a challenging issue, not only for Richmond but for schools across the Commonwealth and schools across the country,” said Rachael Deane, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “We are hopeful that this complaint prompts a positive transformation in the city’s schools and gives every student a chance to succeed.”

ALANNA DURKIN RICHER, Associated Press

Updated Aug. 25 with statement from school district. Adds that the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a similar complaint earlier this month.

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