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RICHMOND, Va. – The Federal Office for Civil Rights has opened an investigation into allegations that the Richmond Public Schools’ disciplinary policies and practices unlawfully discriminate against African-American students and students with disabilities.

The complainants, who first filed in August 2016, were notified April 12 that the office would open an investigation. The Legal Aid Justice Center and the ACLU of Virginia filed the official complaint on behalf of two individual students and the Richmond chapter of the NAACP.

The complaint alleges that during the 2014-15 school year, African-American students with disabilities were 12.91 times more likely than white students without disabilities to be short-term suspended, according to data provided by the Virginia Department of Education.

The lawsuit also references newer data which indicates “an astonishing number of students each school year and that troubling discipline disparities remain.”

According to Virginia Department of Education data, 4,680 students were suspended by RPS at least once during the 2015-16 school year.

African-American students made up nearly 75 percent of the student population but the lawsuit claims they account for 90.4 percent of students who were short-term suspended and 94.2 percent of students who were long-term suspended.

While students with disabilities made up 17.7 percent of the student population, they accounted for 29.8 percent of students who were short-term suspended and 37.4 percent of students who were long-term suspended, the lawsuit stated.

During the investigation, the federal office will collect and analyze information from the complainants, the RPS, and any other relevant sources.

The letter did not indicate how long an investigation would take, or when the results would be released.

Congressman A. Donald McEachin (Va.-04) called the suit a “positive first step.”

“I remain extremely concerned about the treatment of minority and special needs students throughout my district which is why I have requested a district-wide investigation into disparate treatment,” McEachin said.

RPS had not responded to a request for comment by time of publication. In August, when the suit was filed,  RPS said they wish the issue had been brought to them in a more timely manner.

They said their code of conduct handbook has been revised to ensure fair and consistent disciplinary actions for all students.

Richmond Public Schools released a statement that read:

“We are very concerned and focused on the disproportionate disciplinary actions as well as the representation of African Americans identified for special education. Richmond Public Schools, with assistance from the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), has provided additional professional development to staff in key areas (e.g. cultural competence, dynamic assessments with mediated learning, exclusionary factors, multiple assessments, need for specially designed instruction and multi-tiered systems of support) that will assist eligibility committees in making appropriate determinations that are not inappropriately effected by the impact of cultural and/or environmental factors or economic disadvantage.

The current administration is working diligently to ensure that all disciplinary actions are fair and consistent. The Student Code of Responsible Ethics (SCORE) Handbook is continuously reviewed and has been revised to move away from zero tolerance based discipline. As part of these guidelines, faculty and staff now consider factors such as the nature/seriousness of the violation, the student’s age, the student’s previous disciplinary record, and any other relevant circumstances when determining the most appropriate disciplinary interventions/consequences. A tiered model of intervention has been implemented to clearly define which disciplinary can be taken based upon grade level and behavior.

We are always pursuing additional resources for trauma-informed care, as well as social and emotional support for our students, and truly appreciate our partnerships with organizations like SCAN, Child Savers, and VCU through funding from the Robins Foundation to ensure that our instructional staff are trained to recognize those signs. RPS also participated in the East End Trauma Initiative, prior to being awarded the grant from the Robins Foundation, which is a partnership with multiple groups working with our Armstrong Pyramid schools, to develop adult awareness and skills to work with students impacted by trauma. Additionally, RPS has engaged in partnership with the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) for the Virginia Tiered System of Supports (VTSS) Grant to enhance the implementation of positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS) in the George Wythe Pyramid and Richmond Alternative School. RPS has and will continue to forge relationships with community partners to reduce suspensions but also to reduce office disciplinary referrals to enhance a school climate that is conducive to learning. Finally, we are developing a change action plan to infuse social skill instruction to all students with additional tiered supports for students who require additional support beyond the universal level.

We will continue to review our practices to ensure we are following our school board approved policies and guidelines set forth by the VDOE to address student behavior in an equitable and responsible manner.”