Oakland district enters five-year agreement with OCR to address disproportionate suspension rates of black students
The San Francisco Chronicle reports that in the face of a civil rights investigation for disciplining black students more harshly than their white peers, the school board for the Oakland Unified School District recently voted to accept five years of federal monitoring as the district attempts to address the problem.
The agreement with the U.S. Department of Education (ED) shuts down the investigation, but it now means that at least until 2017, federal officials will be monitoring 38 Oakland schools as they work to reduce the disproportionate suspension of minority students, especially African American boys.
Almost 20 percent of the district’s African American males were suspended at least once last year, six times the rate of white boys. In middle school, 1 out of every 3 black boys was suspended at least once. “Historically, they have been the whipping boys in our district,” Chris Chatmon, Executive Director of the district’s African-American Male Achievement Office, said in a presentation to the board. “We are here today to ante up and reclaim our children.”
The 28-page resolution approved by the board in a 6-0 vote outlines a five-year plan to address the needs of students in the 38 schools, including a requirement to offer mentoring, teacher training, parent education and programs to address the impact of trauma and community violence on student behavior.
District Superintendent Tony Smith said the agreement is a powerful and positive step that will force Oakland – regardless of who is elected to the school board or who is running the schools – to stay on track in reducing suspensions. “The agreement codified efforts already in place,” he said. “Everything that’s in there, the board has already approved.” Several programs are already in place to mitigate behavioral problems in classrooms and fights on the playground, Smith said.
While district officials are optimistic about programs already in place, they acknowledged it will not be easy to implement the five-year agreement. The plan will cost the district millions to implement, which includes comprehensive and frequent documentation to prove compliance with the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Smith said he plans to ask foundations and community groups focused on discipline issues to help back the plan, which he believes will be a national model for other districts struggling with disproportionate suspensions.
ED’s Office for Civil Rights initiated the investigation in May 2012 after previous inquiries within the district over the same issues in the late 1990s and in 2006 lapsed without resolution. Oakland now shows promise with its renewed effort already in place to combat suspension rates, officials at the Office for Civil Rights said.
Oakland is just one of hundreds if not thousands of districts across the country with disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion between black students and their white peers. For example, in the Manteca Unified and Jefferson Union High districts, 60 percent of African American students were suspended at least once in the 2009-10 school year, compared with 33 percent and 21 percent of whites, respectively, according to an August report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, 9/27/12, By Jill Tucker
[Editor's Note: In August 2012, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Courier-Post, which reported that the Camden Board of Education in New Jersey had agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a suit brought by seven Hispanic elementary school students, who were made to eat lunch on the floor as punishment for spilling a jug of water. The February 2008 incident stirred claims of bias and underscored tensions between the city’s black and Hispanic communities.
In July 2011, Legal Clips summarized an article in The Capital, which reported that the Anne Arundel County chapter of the NAACP had filed a formal civil rights complaint with ED that alleged African-American students continued to be disciplined in numbers out of balance with their enrollment. The NAACP complaint maintained that the disparity in minority disciplinary rates violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act and fell short of goals outlined in an 2005 agreement between county schools and civil rights advocates mediated by the Department of Justice Community Relations Services.
In January 2011, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Lebanon Daily News, which reported that the Pennsylvania chapter of the NAACP and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILC) had announced plans to file a lawsuit challenging Lebanon School District’s (LSD) truancy policy on the grounds it unfairly targeted minorities. The federal suit asked the court to force LSD to stop collecting and repay 500 truancy fines that the organizations alleged were excessive and issued illegally. The suit claimed that LSD levied $1.3 million in truancy fines in the past eight years, including almost $500,000 in 2008-09 school year. The fines were disproportionately levied against minorities, according to the charges.]