Federal Civil Rights Complaint Challenges Discrimination in Danville Public Schools
DANVILLE, VA – Three students have filed an anti-discrimination complaint against Danville Public Schools with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. The complaint alleges that Danville Public Schools’ disciplinary policies unintentionally discriminate against students with disabilities and students of color in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. DPS’ disciplinary policies punish African-American students and students with disabilities more harshly and more frequently than their peers, the complaint asserts. 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 found that African American students and students with disabilities are more likely than their white, non-disabled peers to face out-of-school suspensions in Danville Public Schools. During the 2014-15 school year, African American students were more than twice as likely to be suspended compared to white students: 18% versus 8%, the third largest disparity in Virginia. Of the 1,153 students who faced short-term suspensions, at least once in 2014-15, 86% were African American. Students with disabilities were also at a higher risk for suspension than their non-disabled peers: 25% versus 17%.
This disparate treatment 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.
“Danville Public Schools’ policies are cutting short the futures of countless African-American students and students with disabilities,” said David Weilnau, staff attorney for VLAS’ Danville office. “The school division needs to take a hard, uncompromising look at its disciplinary practices and their long term impact on vulnerable populations in its student body.”
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. 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.
“School discipline should never deprive a child of an education,” said Robert Winterode, managing attorney of VLAS’ Danville office. “These students are missing out on valuable instructional time. They are missing out on the benefit of behavioral interventions that could very well result in a positive impact in the classroom.”
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.
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Virginia Legal Aid Society is a nonprofit law firm that provides legal information, advice and representation in civil cases to underprivileged individuals and families. Since 1977, VLAS has been the only institutional provider of such services in Central, Southside, and Western Tidewater Virginia. VLAS attorneys and paralegals use legal skills to solve problems in housing, access to health care, income and public benefits, family issues, consumer lending and assets. Our mission is to resolve serious legal problems of vulnerable people, promote economic and family stability, reduce poverty through effective legal assistance, and to champion equal justice. For more information on our services, to get involved, or to make a donation, please visit us at www.vlas.org and follow us on Facebook, www.facebook.com/VaLegalAidSociety, and Twitter @VA_LegalAid
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