School Climate & Safety

Federal Civil Rights Officials Approve Plan to Improve Discipline in Kentucky District

By Evie Blad — February 28, 2014 1 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has agreed to a resolution with Christian County Public Schools in Kentucky following an investigation that revealed vague and unclear school rules and higher rates of discipine for black students, the federal agency said Friday. In the agreement, the 8,700-student district also agreed to cut back on use of exclusionary discipline policies, like suspension and expulsion.

The federal investigation included a review of four years of disciplinary data, which revealed that most rules in “were open to interpretation and undefined, leaving administrators broad discretion in assigning sanctions.” That left parents and students unsure what sort of discipline to expect and meant schools lacked critical safeguards to ensure that teachers and personnel were applying disciplinary policies in a non-discriminatory way, the Education Department said. From the report:

...[B]lack students were disproportionately overrepresented in referrals for disciplinary action and for assignment at least once to in-school suspension and out-of-school suspension in each of the four school years that OCR reviewed (2008-2009 through 2011-2012). For the period under review, black students were also disproportionately overrepresented in referrals to School Resource Officers (SROs). For example, in school year 2010-2011, black students composed 33.8 percent of the district's enrollment, but represented nearly 65 percent of the students referred to SROs. OCR noted that, although expulsion was rarely assigned by the district, when the district took the extreme step of expelling students, over two-thirds of the expulsions were black students. The investigation also revealed that black students were consistently more likely than white students to be assigned in-school suspension and out-of-school suspension when their first disciplinary referral was for violations that were subjective in nature, such as Deliberate Classroom Disruption, Disorderly Conduct, Failure to Follow Directives, and Profanity/Vulgarity. For example, in school year 2010-2011, black students were nearly 3.5 times more likely than white students to receive out-of-school suspension for Profanity/Vulgarity."

In the resolution, the district agreed to work to use alternatives to classroom removal in the discipline process; to seek help from experts in adopting strategies to reduce discrimination in school discipline; to provide student support to help prevent poor behavior; to review and revise its policies; to provide training to staff and education for parents; and to improve its data collection so it can better review its discipline practices.

Public school districts are required to abide by Title VI of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin by recipients of Federal financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education.

After unveiling new guidance designed to help school districts meet their obligations under federal civil rights laws in Januuary, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder said they hoped the materials would help more districts to improve their discipline without the need for a federal investigation.

Critics of that guidance have said it strips districts of local control and that federal officials aren’t providing the resources necessary to improve school climate and make such large-scale changes.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.