Durham, N.C. — The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is investigating whether Durham Public Schools disciplines black students and students with disabilities more than others, according to two groups who filed a formal complaint against the school system earlier this year.
The Advocates for Children's Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project of UCLA, alleges that the school district suspends black students at more than four times the rate of white students – often for minor, non-violent behavior, such as unexcused absences, dress code violations and cursing.
Citing data from the 2009-10 school year, 2,425 black students, or 14.1 percent of all black students enrolled in Durham schools, were suspended at least once. In contrast, the groups say, 3.3 percent of white students were suspended.
The school system also suspended 17 percent of all students with disabilities, compared with 8.4 percent of students without disabilities.
The complaint says students are "disproportionately harmed" by the district's "harsh" suspension policies and practices, and it asks that the Office of Civil Rights encourage the district to adopt "new non-discriminatory policies and practices that use out-of-school suspension as a last resort."
"We are glad that OCR is taking this complaint seriously," said Peggy Nicholson, an attorney with Advocates for Children's Services. "DPS's discriminatory discipline practices, whether intentional or not, have devastating effects on students, families, and our entire community."
Durham Public Schools' director of public information, Chip Sudderth, said the school district is cooperating in the investigation.
"We look forward to beginning the next school year in a spirit of inclusion and innovation that will help all of our students graduate prepared to succeed in college or career," Sudderth said.
The allegations stem from two students' experiences in the school system.
A 17-year-old 11th-grade student had been suspended for 165 days since middle school for behaviors that the groups say were linked to her mental health issues, of which the school system.
A 15-year-old eighth-grader fell behind in school and started failing classes after he was suspended for 24 days in the 2011-12 school year for behavior also linked to mental health issues.
"At no point did DPS discuss or consider substantive ways to address his problem behaviors without resorting to the punitive measure of out-of-school suspension. The school also failed to provide (him) with any education services while he was suspended, resulting in his falling even farther behind."