March 06, 2018 Practice Points

Addressing Discriminatory Discipline in Durham Public Schools

By Jessalyn Schwartz

Following an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) that lasted nearly 5 years, Durham Public Schools (DPS) in North Carolina has entered into a resolution agreement that will allow continued positive change and federal oversight of the school system. In 2013, the Advocates for Children’s Services (ACS) of Legal Aid of North Carolina, along with the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project of UCLA filed a complaint alleging that DPS suspended black students and students with disabilities at a far higher rate than their white and non-disabled classmates.

During the course of the investigation, DPS began to take some positive steps towards remediating the effects of these discriminatory policies, such as arranging community forums, ordering an independent study of its practices and policies, and hiring a Director of Equity Affairs, among other efforts.

The formal resolution agreement sets forth specific steps the district must take in the next year, with continued monitoring by the OCR until at least September 2019. DPS must appoint a discipline supervisor to oversee disciplinary practices throughout the district, develop an Action Plan to ensure equitable treatment of all students facing disciplinary referrals and punishments, engage in data collection and self-monitoring, provide ongoing training to district staff focused on fair and equal disciplinary action, improve guidelines for school police, engage community stakeholders, and review alternative placement procedures.

The goal of the agreement is to combat the school-to-prison pipeline, improve the school environment, and create the opportunity for academic success for all students. This agreement has the potential to be a positive model for other districts across the country and may provide a framework for advocates to make meaningful change in communities impacted by inequity in school discipline and push-out. The support and backing of the OCR demonstrates a commitment within the Department of Education to combat this widespread issue and may signal a shift in response to complaints nationwide.

Jessalyn Schwartz is an attorney in Boston, MA, focusing on child welfare and mental health law.

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