Archive for the ‘Alliance for Virginia’s Students’ Category

Virginia Schools Need Support Staff, Not More Police

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Virginia Schools Need Investment in Support Staff—Not More School Resource Officers

Yesterday, Governor Northam announced over $3.47 million in School Resource Officer (SRO) incentive grants to 53 localities across the Commonwealth. The funding will allow school divisions to add more SROs to Virginia’s K-12 public schools, increasing the number of SROs in Virginia by 10 percent, according to the press release. To create safer schools where all children can learn and thrive, Virginia must divest from placing law enforcement inside schools and make bold new investments in school support staff and trauma-informed and restorative practices.

School Policing Is A Racial Justice Issue

African-American students are disproportionately swept into the criminal justice system for incidents that take place at school. A 2017 Virginia Tech study uncovered significant racial disparities in referrals to law enforcement for school-based offenses: African-American students accounted for roughly 23 percent of the student population in Virginia but nearly 50 percent of referrals to the juvenile justice system. Those disparities are heightened inside school buildings and persist throughout Virginia’s law enforcement and juvenile court process. A single report of a student to law enforcement, even if it does not lead to a juvenile court intake, can have devastating and ongoing consequences for a student: stigmatization by school staff and peers, erosion of trust in school staff, susceptibility to more police encounters, and loss of interest in school.

As outlined in an extensive report from The Advancement Project, school policing has roots in efforts to quash youth support for the Civil Rights movement, and African-American students report feeling less safe with police in schools.

Our Schools Don’t Need More SROs

According to Virginia’s 2017 Statewide School Safety Audit Survey, 87 percent of high schools and 85 percent of middle schools have either a full-time or part-time SRO. In recent years, in headline after headline, we have heard about school police officers responding with force against students with disabilities, using chemical restraints like pepper spray against middle school students, threatening or intimidating students, and harboring ties to white supremacist groups. Through data collection, we see vague, subjective behavioral “offenses” like disorderly conduct charges decrease in the community, yet substantially increase in our schools. Only this past General Assembly session did lawmakers mandate that all SROs receive training specific to their duties—a law that will not even go into effect in full until July 2020.    

Both the data and historically overpoliced communities themselves tell us clearly: rather than providing for the safety of students, a school law enforcement presence merely shuttles more students—and disproportionately more African-American students—into court for school discipline matters that should be handled by school personnel.

Meanwhile, Virginia understaffs positions critical to student support—positions that should be the first line of support for students who instead are garnering charges—and student caseloads are staggering. School counselors had an average caseload of 385 students in 2016, well above the recommended standard of 250 students. In 2015, school social workers had an average caseload of 1,600 students; the national recommendation was 1,000.

Virginia Must Fix Its School Funding Crisis

SROs are law enforcement officers, not student support personnel. Rather than prioritizing SROs, the Commonwealth must first fulfill its state constitutional duty to invest in high-quality, twenty-first century schools with adequate student support staff. But given the opportunity, the administration has neglected to propose, and the General Assembly has declined, over and over, to fully fund the required staffing positions to achieve high-quality schools for all students. Despite broad support for a new law, effective July 1, to require school divisions to lower counselor-to-student ratios, the state’s FY20 budget doesn’t fully fund the new caseload requirements—leaving local school divisions with an unfunded mandate. This shortfall also exists despite recommendations from the Virginia Board of Education to lift the state budget’s arbitrary “support position cap”—which limits funding for school support positions, including central office positions, attendance officers, school social workers, and maintenance personnel.

To truly create supportive learning enforcements for our students—Virginia must fully fund our schools.




New Report on Virginia’s School Discipline Crisis

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                                                                      

Amy Woolard
Attorney and Policy Coordinator, Legal Aid Justice Center
434-529-1846 |

New Report: Virginia’s School Discipline Crisis—Racial Disparities Widened in 2016-17; Suspended Students Across the Commonwealth Received Inadequate (or No) Education While Out of School

Charlottesville, Virginia (October 25, 2018) – Virginia schools continued to use school exclusion as a consequence for student behavioral concerns at an alarming rate during the 2016-17 academic year—an ongoing crisis that harms Black students and students with disabilities most profoundly.   

A 2018 update to the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Suspended Progress report series reveals that, during the 2016-17 school year, Virginia schools issued over 127,800 out-of-school suspensions to over 73,000 students, marking an increase over the prior year in the number of students in the Commonwealth subjected to exclusionary discipline.

In this update to Suspended Progress, the Legal Aid Justice Center finds that:

  • Black students were suspended at rates 5 times higher than Hispanic and white students, a significantly wider gap over the prior year;
  • Students with disabilities were suspended at rates 3 times higher than that of non-disabled students;
  • Virginia schools continued to suspend very young students at an astonishing rate, issuing nearly 18,000 short-term suspensions and at least 111 long-term suspensions just to children in pre-k through 3rd grade—a marked increase over the 2015-16 year;
  • Once again, the vast majority of all suspensions were issued for minor offenses, with approximately two-thirds of all suspensions issued for behavior offenses like: possession of cell phones, minor insubordination, disrespect, and using inappropriate language; and
  • Students excluded from their home school—if they continue to receive education at all—are often funneled into inadequate alternative programs that operate without accountability to academic goals or the Commonwealth’s high educational standards.

“Too often in Virginia schools, we use ‘suspension’ and ‘accountability’ as synonyms,” said Amy Woolard, Legal Aid Justice Center attorney and author of the report. “When students exhibit behavioral issues, we can and should look to alternatives to school exclusion that can hold students accountable if needed, while also continuing their education and addressing underlying needs, such as physical and mental health supports, trauma-informed care, disability services, and mentoring.”

The report points to proven alternatives to school exclusion that keep students connected to academics and provide tailored interventions when needed. Those trauma-informed alternatives include restorative practices, multi-tiered systems of supports, and Social and Emotional Learning programs as positive steps local schools can implement in lieu of exclusion.

The Legal Aid Justice Center’s report provides policymakers with immediate steps to take during the 2019 General Assembly session to continue their work in pushing forward on positive reforms of the disciplinary system. It also offers local school boards and communities a framework for ensuring student codes of conduct promote positive school climate and keep students on track toward graduation—all of which, in turn, increases school safety for students and school staff alike.

“We must address our constitutional duty to provide a high-quality public education to all students, and particularly to Black students and students with disabilities, who have been bearing the devastating brunt of school exclusion practices for far too long,” said Woolard. “Our response to behavioral issues cannot continue to drive students out of the classroom and away from the positive connections and critical supports they need to thrive and successfully reach graduation.”

To read the report, visit:


About the Legal Aid Justice Center
The Legal Aid Justice Center (LAJC) fights injustice in the lives of individual Virginians while rooting out exploitative policies and practices that keep people in poverty. LAJC uses impact litigation, community organizing, and policy advocacy to solve urgent problems in areas such as housing, education, civil rights, immigration, healthcare and consumer finance. LAJC’s primary service areas are Charlottesville, Northern Virginia, Richmond and Petersburg, but the effects of their work are felt statewide.

Follow the Legal Aid Justice Center on Twitter @LegalAidJustice and on Facebook.


Discrimination Complaint – Richmond Public Schools

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Federal civil rights complaint asserts that RPS discipline policies discriminate against African-American students and students with disabilities.

RICHMOND, VA Two students and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have filed an anti-discrimination complaint against Richmond Public Schools with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

RPS’ discipline policies punish African-American students and students with disabilities more harshly and more frequently than their peers, the complaint asserts. 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 complainants are represented by the Legal Aid Justice Center’s JustChildren program and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia.

“These disparities cannot be explained by differences in student behavior,” said Rachael Deane, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center. “Rather, there is overwhelming evidence that the school division’s discipline policies are excessively punitive and lack clear standards for application, leading to subjective interpretation and selective enforcement.”

Complainants allege that the student code fails to clearly define misconduct and prescribes overly harsh consequences for relatively minor misbehavior.  “The ACLU is concerned about the wide disparities in the application of student discipline based on race and disability,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Leslie Mehta. “Overly punitive discipline policies damage the learning environment, deny African-American students and students with disabilities of their right to an education and push children into the school-to-prison pipeline.”

During the 2014-15 school year, African-American students made up about 76 percent of the total student population in RPS but were issued 93 percent of short-term suspensions, 98 percent of long-term suspensions, and 97 percent of expulsions. African-American students were 5.69 times more likely than white students to be short-term suspended. Students with disabilities were 2.77 times more likely than students without disabilities to be short-term suspended. Students with disabilities made up 16 percent of the student population but were issued 31 percent of short-term suspensions, 30 percent of long-term suspensions, and 63 percent of expulsions.

“The school division must conduct an unflinching examination of these disparities and adopt strategies to improve school climate and ensure that discipline policies are fair for all students,” said Lynetta Thompson, president of the Richmond NAACP.

The complaint calls for alternative approaches to discipline that would address instances of student misconduct while improving overall school climate. It argues that that Richmond Public Schools could eliminate discrimination and more effectively ensure safe and orderly schools through the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, social and emotional learning programs and restorative justice processes.

“Suspensions hurt everyone. Students who are removed from school are at a greater risk of academic failure, dropping out, and becoming involved in the justice system,” said Deane. “We hope this complaint leads to a positive transformation within the city schools.”


Full Complaint
Complaint Appendices
Press Release
Fact Sheet
Office for Civil Rights School Discipline Discrimination Guidance
Office for Civil Rights Resolution Agreement Database

Media Coverage

Virginia School District Disproportionately Punishes Black Students, Complaint Says
(TIME, 8/24/16)

Black students file civil rights complaint against Richmond schools over discipline practices
(Washington Post, 8/24/16)

Students, NAACP file federal civil rights complaint against Richmond Public Schools
(Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8/24/16)

2 students, NAACP file anti-discrimination complaint against Richmond Public Schools
(ABC 8 News, 8/24/16)

2 students, NAACP file anti-discrimination lawsuit against RPS*
(CBS 6, 8/24/16)

Complaint: Black Students Punished More Harshly Than Whites
(ABC News, 8/24/16)

Federal Civil Rights Complaint Filed Against Richmond Public Schools
(NBC 29, 8/24/16)

ACLU: 2 students, Richmond NAACP file anti-discrimination lawsuit against RPS*
(NBC 12, 8/24/16)

Students File Discrimination Complaint Against Richmond Public Schools
(Virginia Public Radio, 8/24/16)

Harsher discipline of Black students spurs lawsuit in Va.*
(The Philadelphia Tribune, 8/26/16)

*The action was an administrative complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, not a lawsuit.

JustChildren Releases School Policing Report

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Protecting Childhood: A Blueprint for Developmentally Appropriate School Policing in Virginia

The JustChildren Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center has released a report identifying the problems of placing law enforcement officers in schools. The report provides a list of detailed recommendations that will improve school safety, increase academic achievement, and help break down the school-to-prison pipeline.

School security personnel are increasingly commonplace in Virginia’s public schools. There are two types. School resource officers (SROs) are certified law enforcement officers who are typically employed by local law enforcement agencies and assigned to provide coverage to public schools. School security officers (SSOs) are individuals employed by school divisions to maintain order and discipline in their assigned schools. To date, little analysis of school policing in the Commonwealth exists. This report aims to change that.

More info here.

Report says Virginia should require school police training and alter laws to reduce arrests (Center for Public Integrity)

Full Report (PDF)


Virginia Tops Nation in Referring Students to Police

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Today, the investigative journalism organization Center for Public Integrity released an investigative report analyzing U.S. Department of Education data that shows Virginia leads all states in referring students to law enforcement. At almost 16 referrals per 1,000 children, the rate is three times the national rate.

The Center for Public Integrity’s report highlights a harmful trend taking place in school districts across America—an over-reliance on law enforcement and harsh discipline policies that too often criminalize students for minor offenses. We are deeply troubled by the data showing Virginia refers students to police and courts at the highest rate of any state in the nation. Yet we know first-hand that current policies fall short of preventing arrests and criminal complaints in schools for behavior that should be handled with a trip to the principal’s office rather than the courthouse.

This report underscores the urgent need for a statewide memorandum of understanding that clearly spells out the roles of police and resource officers in schools. We also must ensure the adequate training of school resource officers to work collaboratively with educators to address student behavior. The report also highlights the need for better tracking and detailed data collection at the state level. Knowing the extent of school-based arrests and police involvement with students at school will help identify areas for improvement and need, and where other disciplinary interventions might help.

We know that Virginia is a state that cares deeply about providing all children with safe and supportive learning environments, and new policies already have begun shaping changes in how schools manage student discipline. We strongly urge state leaders to continue examining and implementing reforms that will keep children in school and on a track toward success.


Press Release (PDF)

Media Coverage

Center for Public Integrity: Virginia tops nation in sending students to cops, courts


The Virginian Pilot: Study: Va tops U.S. in police handled student incidents

Business Insider: Study finds Virginia leads nation in referring students to police

Loudoun Times: Va. ranked top for school-based arrests

WVTF Public Radio: VA Tops U.S. in Referring Students to Law Enforcement

NBC12: Report: VA schools rank #1 nationallly for student referrals to law enforcement

Newsplex: Report: Virginia Refers the Most Students to Police for Misbehavior

Richmond Times-Dispatch: Report: Va leads US in student law enforcement referrals

Victory for Bill to Limit Restraint & Seclusion!

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The Legal Aid Justice Center was part of a coalition of 40 groups from across the state representing parents, children, students, advocates for people with disabilities, child abuse prevention advocates and legal advocates applauds the Virginia General Assembly for passing legislation that will limit the harmful use of seclusion and physical restraint in schools to emergency situations. The Coalition for the Improvement of School Safety advocated in support of H.B. 1443 and S.B. 782, which passed with overwhelming support from both houses and is expected to land on the desk of Gov. Terry McAuliffe soon.

“We are proud to have joined with our partners to support this legislation, which will provide meaningful protections to Virginia students and give school staff the tools they need to prevent and address challenging behaviors,” said Angela A. Ciolfi, legal director of the JustChildren Program at Virginia’s Legal Aid Justice Center. “Physical restraint and seclusion should never be a default form of school discipline.”


Press Release (PDF)

Media Coverage


The Roanoke Times, “Stories of trauma in Virginia prompt crackdown on seclusion rooms”

Report: Achievement Gap Widens

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ChartA new Report by the Legal Aid Justice Center finds that the achievement gap between low-income and other students has widened substantially since 2009 when the state slashed the education budget to address a short-term economic downturn.

“A widening achievement gap is an alarming trend, suggesting that budget cuts may be having a disproportionately negative impact on low-income students,” according to the Report’s author, policy researcher John Morgan. “This threatens to undo previous progress and to stall Virginia’s efforts to raise achievement levels of low-income students and struggling schools.”


Report: Budget Cuts Coincide with Widening Gap (PDF)

Press Release (PDF)

Inappropriate Use of Restraint & Seclusion in Schools

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U.S. Department of Education Finds Inappropriate Use of Restraint and Seclusion of Students with Disabilities at Virginia Schools

Following a comprehensive investigation at two public special education schools, the U.S. Department of Education has found that the repeated use of physical restraint and seclusion to manage student behavior is ineffective and inappropriate. The Department’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) determined that the PACE East and PACE West schools in Prince William County, Va., routinely denied students their right to an appropriate education when they were consistently removed from classrooms and placed in a separate room

The findings were issued in response to a November 2012 complaint filed on behalf of the mother of a PACE East student with emotional disabilities who was placed in a seclusion room for hours at a time on multiple occasions and subjected to floor-facing extreme restraint on six occasions. This included four instances where police were involved, even though his behavior did not indicate any danger to himself or others. The systemic complaint centered on the schools’ pervasive overuse of seclusion and restraint as a default behavioral intervention that discriminated against students with emotional disabilities.

Press Release (PDF)

Complaint (PDF)

OCR Letter of Findings (PDF)

News Coverage

Prince William Schools Restrain, Seclude Disabled Kids Frequently, Inquiry Finds
(Washington Post, 8/6/14)

OCR Finds Misuse of Seclusion, Restraint (Politico Morning Education, 8/7/14)

Feds: Prince William School Staff Too Frequently Restrained Disabled Students
(Inside NoVa, 8/7/14)

Prince William Schools Restrain, Seclude Disabled Kids Frequently, Inquiry Finds
(The Wrightslaw Way, 8/7/14)

2 Virginia Schools Blamed for Restraining Students (The Daily Progress, 8/7/14)

Two Virginia Schools Blamed for Restraining Students (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8/7/14)

Investigation into Virginia Public Schools’ Use of Seclusion and Physical Restraint
(WVTF Public Radio, 8/8/14)

Federal Investigators Crack Down on Two Virginia Schools’ Use of Restraints (ProPublica, 8/11/14)

JustChildren Helps Exonerate Innocent Youth

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Coker TeamEdgar Coker was only 15 when, upon advice of court-appointed counsel, he entered a guilty plea to the rape of a 14-year-old neighbor and was ordered to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. The complaining witness recanted her story two months later. However, it took seven years, several attorneys, dozens of law students, and a trip to the Virginia Supreme Court to remove Edgar Coker’s name from the sex offender registry. On February 10, Judge Jane Marum Roush issued an order vacating his conviction due to the constitutionally ineffective assistance provided by his trial counsel. The case is an unsettling reminder of why our youth desperately need highly skilled and motivated representation in juvenile court.

Photo: Edgar Coker outside the Virginia Supreme Court with his family and legal team, which includes attorneys from JustChildren and the UVA School of Law’s Innocence Project and Child Advocacy Clinic.

Judge Roush’s Order in E.C. v. DJJ

Press Coverage:

Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, 02/10/14 (Exoneration)

Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, 02/14/14 (Edgar’s Reaction)

Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, 03/01/14 (Life Forever Changed)

Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, 03/03/14 (No Retrial)

UVA Law School

The Daily Progress

The Washington Post, 02/12/14 (Exoneration)

The Washington Post, 02/17/14 (Brighter Future)

The Washington Times

New Report on Suspensions and Racial Disparities

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The University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and the Legal Aid Justice Center have partnered on a new report documenting the scope of racial disparities in school suspension in Virginia. The Report finds that, in Virginia schools, black male students are at least twice as likely to be suspended as white male students. Most black students are being suspended for relatively minor misbehavior, such as being loud or disruptive in class.

The report also unveils the results of a new study demonstrating that use of the Virginia Student Threat Assessment Guidelines (VSTAG) is associated with lower rates of school suspensions, including a smaller racial discipline gap. Schools using VSTAG have substantially lower rates of school suspensions, especially among black males.

Press Release (PDF)

Report: Prevention v Punishment Report (PDF)


Press Coverage:

Washington Post

Richmond Times-Dispatch

UVA Today

C-Ville Weekly



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