Office of Civil Rights to Examine Discipline of Black Students

Mary Giunca, Winston-Salem Journal, March 24, 2011

The U.S. Office of Civil Rights will visit six Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools next month in its review of whether discipline policies, especially for black male students, are in line, school officials said Wednesday.

The visits to conduct interviews, part of a review that began a year ago, will take place the week of April 4, said Allison Tomberlin, general counsel for the school system.

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The school system has come under criticism from the NAACP and a local leadership forum over statistics indicating possible disproportionate punishment of black students. African-American students are suspended more than any other racial group in the district. Black males accounted for 63.8 percent of suspensions in 2009-2010, according to school data, but represent only about 13 percent of all students.

The Office of Civil Rights, which is part of the U.S. Department of Education, plans to visit Mount Tabor and Reynolds high schools, Hanes, Jefferson and Mineral Springs middle schools and Mineral Springs elementary.

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In addition, schools are being asked to describe how they handle discipline, at what point discipline matters are turned over to an assistant principal and who enters discipline information into the computer system.

Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said {snip} the office is looking at whether the school system discriminates against black students, and in particular black males, by disciplining them more frequently and more harshly than white students in similar circumstances.

“Specifically, the review focuses on the disproportionality in suspension rates,” he said.

The review will also look at whether black students are referred disproportionately to law-enforcement authorities, he said.

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Tomberlin said the school system learned of the investigation in May. She said she was told investigations are prompted by survey data, newspaper reports and a pattern of complaints. Between June and February the school system provided the civil-rights office with discipline policies, procedures and statistics.

Theo Helm, a spokesman for the school system, said the civil-rights office has asked for data from 2008-2009 and 2009-2010. During that time, the district has reduced the number of suspensions, reduced the maximum length of out-of-school suspension from 10 to eight days, eliminated suspensions for being tardy or skipping school and added cultural sensitivity training. {snip}

The Rev. Seth Lartey, a member of a local leadership forum that is concerned about school suspensions, said he has not been invited to meet with the federal representatives. He said the school system alone cannot be held responsible for discipline problems. Parents sometimes don’t support their children in school, and students don’t always come to school ready to learn, he said.

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