December 20, 2016 Practice Points

Watson Chapel School District Consent Decree

By Sarah Durham

As part of an ongoing 1970 civil case, United States of America v. Cotton Plant School District #1, Et Al., the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Watson Chapel Arkansas School District have reached an agreement in the form of a consent order outlining specific measures the district must take to prevent discrimination. While the DOJ recently found that the district complied with the desegregation obligations outlined decades ago, the DOJ concluded that suspension and expulsion rates for African-American students during the 2014–2015 school year still occurred at rates significantly higher than those for Caucasian students. The difference in the rates was attributed to the district's discipline policies, procedures, and practices; the consent order aims to reduce such disparities through refocus and reform.

The consent order involves an overall different approach to discipline. The district will transition from a punitive approach to student behavior to a more positive approach, focusing on intervention and support. Various and detailed steps are outlined in the order to achieve such a transition. Among them, the district must employ a School Culture and Climate Specialist whose purpose is to oversee the school's implementation efforts. A defined discipline structure, outlined in the revised Code of Conduct will be implemented. It will consist of three levels of infractions and correlated to specific responses to those infractions. Administrators and Instructional staff, including teachers and aides, will attend mandatory initial and supplemental trainings throughout the transition.

Furthermore, due process must be provided before Exclusionary Discipline measures are enacted. Per the consent order, students and their parents or guardians will be privy to the discipline conversations taking place through school assemblies and community engagement activities.

The Department of Justice and the Watson Chapel Arkansas School District want to improve student achievement and overall school climate. The consent order is a calculated step toward both. For additional information and details, see the consent order.

Sarah Durham is a class of 2019 J.D. candidate at the UNT Dallas College of Law in Dallas, Texas.


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