Archive for the ‘JustChildren Legal Assistance’ Category

New Report on Virginia’s School Discipline Crisis

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                                                                      

CONTACT:
Amy Woolard
Attorney and Policy Coordinator, Legal Aid Justice Center
434-529-1846 | amy@justice4all.org

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: www.justice4all.org/suspension.

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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.

 

OCR Investigating Richmond Public Schools

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

CONTACTS:
Tim Wallace
Director of Development, Legal Aid Justice Center
434-529-1853 | twallace@justice4all.org

Bill Farrar
Director, Public Policy and Communications
804-873-0624 | bfarrar@acluva.org

Federal Office for Civil Rights Opens Investigation of Discrimination in Richmond Public Schools
Congressman McEachin Joins LAJC, ACLU, and Richmond NAACP in Calling for a Swift But Thorough Investigation

 Richmond, Va., April 17, 2017—The United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) has given notice it will open an investigation into allegations that the Richmond Public Schools’ disciplinary policies and practices unlawfully discriminate against African American students and students with disabilities.

In August 2016, Legal Aid Justice Center and the ACLU of Virginia filed a complaint with OCR on behalf of two individual students and the Richmond chapter of the NAACP, alleging that RPS’ discipline policies punish African American students and students with disabilities more harshly and more frequently than their peers.

On April 12, 2017, OCR notified complainants that the office would open an investigation. During the investigation, OCR will collect and analyze information from the complainants, the Richmond Public Schools, and any other relevant sources. The letter did not indicate how long an investigation would take, or when the results would be released.

“I am very pleased to learn that OCR has opened an investigation into Richmond Schools because of the complaint filed by Just Children. 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. This is a positive first step and I strongly encourage the OCR and the DOE to initiate expeditiously a broad and in-depth investigation, as I have requested. Thank you, Just Children, for your critical and outstanding work on behalf of our students,” said Congressman A. Donald McEachin (VA-04).

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. New data has surfaced since the Complaint’s filing indicating that RPS continues to exclude an astonishing number of students each school year and that troubling discipline disparities remain.  According to Virginia Department of Education data, RPS suspended 4,680 students at least once during the 2015-16 school year. African-American students made up nearly 75 percent of the student population but 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.

“These disparities have persisted too long,” said Rachael Deane, legal director for JustChildren, LAJC’s child advocacy program. “We applaud the opening of an investigation, and ask OCR to conduct a swift but thorough investigation of unfair discipline in RPS.”

Complainants allege that the student code fails to clearly define misconduct and prescribes overly harsh consequences for relatively minor misbehavior. 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.

“We are confident that the OCR investigation will shed light on and bring corrective relief to systematic disparities based on race and disability in RPS’ application of discipline,” said Leslie Chambers Mehta, legal director for the ACLU of Virginia. “This is a first step towards eradicating the school-to-prison pipeline in Virginia’s capital city.”

Resources:
Press Release (pdf)

OCR Notification Letter (pdf)

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.

About the ACLU of Virginia
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia is a private, non-profit organization that promotes civil liberties and civil rights for everyone in the Commonwealth through public education, litigation and advocacy with the goal of securing freedom and equality for all. In addition to the litigation for which the ACLU has been known, we also educate the public, inform the media, lobby legislators, organize grassroots activists, and disseminate information about our constitutional freedoms through our membership and volunteer chapters.

Follow the ACLU of Virginia on Twitter @ACLUVA 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.”

Resources

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.

RPS Improves Language Policies for Families

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Richmond Public Schools Agrees to Significant Improvements in Policies for Non-English-Speaking Families – Agreement with U.S. Department of Education Resolves Civil Rights Complaint Filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center

As the result of a complaint filed by the Legal Aid Justice Center with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, the Richmond Public School division has agreed to revise and improve its policies to ensure that parents and guardians whose primary language is not English are not discriminated against and have full access to the educational process

The complaint was filed on behalf of a Spanish-speaking parent whose middle school child faced expulsion from Richmond Public Schools (RPS). According to the complaint, although the mother spoke only Spanish, the school division conducted its expulsion process in English only, preventing the mother “from meaningfully participating in the disciplinary process and understanding her rights.”

Resources
Press Release (PDF)

Redacted Complaint (PDF)

Office of Civil Rights Resolution Letter (PDF)


News Coverage

Richmond Public Schools Settles Language-Barrier Complaint (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 8/13/14)

 

“Child Find” Complaint Filed in Petersburg

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The JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center has filed a complaint with the Virginia Department of Education describing systemic problems with Petersburg City Public Schools’ “Child Find” program. Child Find is a part of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) that requires that schools provide free, appropriate education to children with disabilities.  The Child Find mandate requires that schools identify and evaluate all students with disabilities in order to ensure that children receive the educational services they need.

The complaint, filed on behalf of six individual students and all similarly-situated PCPS students, describes three Child Find violations: 1) the failure to locate and evaluate students who need special education services; 2) the failure to appropriately find students eligible for services even after evaluating; and 3) the failure to provide meaningful educational benefits to students who need special education services.

Resources
Press Release (PDF)

Complaint (PDF)

News Coverage
Lawyers Allege Petersburg Fails to Serve Special Education Students (Richmond Times-Dispatch, 6/19/2014)

Legal Aid Justice Center Files Complaint Against Petersburg Public Schools (WWBT-TV NBC12 Richmond, 6/16/2014)

Local Law Group Files Complaint Against Petersburg Schools (WRIC ABC 8News Richmond, 6/19/2014)

Parents File Department of Education Complaint Against Petersburg Schools (WTVR CBS6 Richmond, 6/19/2014)

 

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

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