Child advocates confront RPS board amid federal discrimination probe

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – Child advocates confronted Richmond School Board members Monday night about a federal investigation into the system’s disciplinary practices amid complaints the district may have violated some students’ civil rights.

Richmond public schools are accused of punishing black students and students with disabilities more often and more harshly than their classmates.

“We should not be using taxpayer dollars to teach you guys how to abuse our children,” said Kandise Lucas with Advocates for Equity in School during public comment at the RPS School Board meeting. “This is not the environment that we want to cultivate.”

In a letter dated April 12, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights announced the launch of an investigation into an August 2016 complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, and Legal Aid Justice Center.

The complaint alleges black students and students with disabilities are more likely than white students, to be suspended or expelled from Richmond schools.

School Board chair Dawn Page pointed out that no one currently sitting on the board was in office when the complaint was filed.

“We welcome the investigation and solution,” she told 8News.

“It’s just a big disconnect with the whole community,” said Roderick Bullock with the Richmond NAACP, claiming one student with special needs had his mouth forced shut at school.

“He has a real learning disability. They allowed his teacher to tape his mouth shut. They didn’t give him any counseling.” 8News has not been able to verify Bullock’s claim.

The civil rights office says the opening of the investigation does not mean the school system has done anything wrong.

Meanwhile, Page assured parents that their children are safe at Richmond Public Schools.

“Children, that’s our first priority. Making sure our children are learning in a safe nurturing environment.

In a statement to 8News, RPS spokeswoman Kenita Bowers said the following:

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. 

This is a developing story. Stay with 8News online and on air for the latest updates.

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