Suit Alleging Racial Bias in Discipline Is Settled

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A suit alleging that the Jefferson County, Ky., school system discriminated against black students in disciplinary matters has been tentatively settled with the school board's adoption of a new discipline code and procedural safeguards.

The suit, Stevenson v. Board of Education, was filed in U.S. District Court more than two years ago on behalf of four black students and a group called United Black Protective Parents. It was later certified as a class action on behalf of all students in the district, which includes Louisville and enrolls about 90,000 students, about one-third of whom are black.

Discriminatory Practices

Data gathered by the school district and the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights indicated that black students were more than twice as likely as whites to be suspended for misbehavior. The plaintiffs, represented by the Legal Aid Society, contended that the disparity was caused largely by discriminatory practices and violations of students' due-process rights.

Similar suits are pending against at least four other districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, according to Paul L. Weckstein, director of the Washington office of the Center for Law and Education Inc.

Nationally, he said, black students are about twice as likely as whites to be suspended, and blacks are far more likely to be disciplined for "subjective" offenses such as insubordination.

"There's a fairly common pattern of the disparities increasing after desegregation starts," as it did in Jefferson County in the fall of 1975, he said. The settlement tentatively approved this month by U.S. District Judge Charles M. Allen was made possible largely because of actions taken by the Jefferson County school board during the past two years, according to Jon L. Fleischaker, the board's attorney. The agreement "formalizes the commitment of the system" to fair discipline procedures, Mr. Fleischaker said.

The steps taken include:

Adopting a discipline code that includes a "grid" system of graduated penalties for misbehavior, requiring that serious or repeated offenses be punished more severely. The Jefferson County Teachers Association, which intervened in the case last year, helped develop the new procedures.

Separate sets of penalties have been established for elementary-, middle-, and high-school students. The new code also includes procedures for disciplining special-education students, and the school system has agreed to study ways to reduce cultural bias in the testing procedures used for assigning students to special-education classes.

Establishing a method for tracing disciplinary referrals, so that teachers who repeatedly send students to the principal or assistant principal can be identified. This monitoring system was suggested by the Education Department's office for civil rights after a review of the system's practices.

"The district is then obligated to deal with 'over-referring' teachers," said Mary Z. Ceridan, a legal-aid lawyer who worked on the case.

Requiring that teachers use certain disciplinary measures in class before referring a student to the school administration.

Providing for special conferences prior to suspension. Some parents had complained that they were not notified of their children's difficulties until the students were suspended.

A public hearing has been scheduled for Dec. 16 at which "members of the class will have the opportunity to come in and question the settlement," Ms. Ceridan said. If no serious objections are raised, Judge Allen will give his final approval to the agreement, she said.

The second part of the suit, which alleges that the Education Department's civil-rights office failed to investigate the district and enforce antidiscrimination provisions, was also settled, Mr. Fleischaker said. The civil-rights unit agreed to monitor disciplinary action more closely and to provide technical assistance.--pc

Vol. 02, Issue 12

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