Three students file federal civil rights complaint against Danville Public Schools

(Copyright by WSLS - All rights reserved)

DANVILLE (WSLS 10) - Three students have filed an anti-discrimination complaint against Danville Public Schools with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, according to the Virginia Legal Aid Society.

The complaint alleges that Danville Public Schools' disciplinary policies punish African-American students and students with disabilities more harshly and more frequently than their peers.

The complaint was filed on behalf of all African American students and students with disabilities who have been subjected to discriminatory policies and practices in the school system.

The complainants are represented by Virginia Legal Aid Society.

VLAS says that during the 2014-15 school year, African American students were more than twice as likely to be suspended compared to white students: 18 percent versus 8 percent, the third largest disparity in Virginia. Of the 1,153 students who faced short-term suspensions at least once in 2014-15, 86 percent were African American, according to numbers found by VLAS.

Also, the VLAS says if found that students with disabilities were also at a higher risk for suspension than their non-disabled peers: 25 percent versus 17 percent.

VLAS says that the difference in suspensions is the result of vague disciplinary policies that give disciplinarians too much discretion in determining appropriate punishments for minor offenses. Complainants allege that DPS' student code fails to clearly define misconduct and prescribes overly harsh consequences for minor misbehavior.

Studies have found correlations between out-of-school suspensions and serious consequences for affected students, such as increased behavioral problems, academic struggles, dropping out, substance abuse, and involvement with the legal system, according to VLAS.

The consequences can be severe and long-lasting for children, and have costly repercussions for the City of Danville. VLAS alleges that disciplinary policies like Danville Public Schools' contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline and should be adjusted for the welfare of students and the community.

The complaint calls for alternative approaches to discipline that would address instances of student misconduct while improving overall school climate. It argues that Danville 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.

Danville Public Schools released this statement in response to the complaint filed:

Danville Public Schools Superintendent, Dr. Stanley B. Jones was notified late last evening via email of a complaint filed by Virginia Legal Aid on behalf of three students. It alleges that Danville Public Schools' disciplinary policies unintentionally discriminate against students with disabilities and students of color.

Since arriving in July 2015, Dr. Jones has expressed concern about student suspension, discipline procedures and practices. Under Jones' leadership, Danville Public Schools has implemented a number of practices that have helped to improve the climate in schools. For more than a year, the schools have implemented initiatives and professional development for staff, to include implementing school-wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Support (PBIS), restructuring discipline procedures and appeals, and training staff in the areas of Implicit Bias and Cultural Competency.

These initiatives have had a tremendous positive impact on school climate and the number of student infractions. According to Jones, one example is a comparison of discipline data at George Washington High School (GWHS). There were 250 discipline infractions at GWHS in August of 2015 compared to 77 in August of 2016. That is nearly a 70% decrease in discipline infractions from 2015 to 2016. The school division is experiencing similar success with decreases in suspension and discipline infractions in other schools. Additionally, the office of Student Safety, Discipline and Intervention Services was created to ensure that there is support for students and their families who may be struggling with issues related to behavior. "When a student struggles, we should exhaust every possible resource to keep him or her in school," says Jones. According to Jones, the past practices resulting in high levels of suspension and expulsion have changed drastically over the last 14 months. Improving the school climate and culture is a strong focus going forward.