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Rep. McEachin Requests Federal Investigation into High Suspension Rates for African-American and Disabled Students by Holly Rodriguez

April 2, 2017

Rep. McEachin Requests Federal Investigation into High Suspension Rates for African-American and Disabled Students
By Holly Rodriguez

Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.)

Special to the Trice Edney News Wire from the Richmond Free Press

RICHMOND, Va. ( - Congressman A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) has asked the U.S. Department of Education to investigate the disproportionately high suspension rates for African-American students and students with disabilities in his district.

His request, made in a March 26 letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, seeks a prompt review by the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights.

It also comes on the heels of a complaint filed in August with the Office for Civil Rights by the Richmond Branch NAACP claiming African-American students, particularly those with disabilities, are unfairly punished in Richmond Public Schools.

So far, there has been no response from the federal office.

“Unfair, unwarranted disparities in student treatment are completely unacceptable; the consequences for affected students are deeply harmful and, potentially, extremely long-lasting,” Rep. McEachin stated in his letter to DeVos. “As you know, the federal government has a unique ability, and a correspondingly great responsibility, to help correct such injustices.

“Accordingly, I write to request that the Office for Civil Rights … investigate all documented disparities in the ways public schools in Virginia’s Fourth Congressional District treat their students.”

The district, which runs from Richmond to Chesapeake, also includes Henrico, Chesterfield and Petersburg, Va.

In a phone interview with the Free Press, Rep. McEachin said his office made repeated requests to Henrico County Public Schools officials to provide reasons for the steady rise in the number of African-American students, some with disabilities, who are disciplined with suspensions and expulsions at a disproportionately higher number than non-African-American students.

“We tried to be proactive,” he said. “And despite inquiry after inquiry after inquiry, (HCPS) never provided an explanation for the continued rise or a plan of action to remedy this problem.”

As the son of a special education teacher, Rep. McEachin said his knowledge and work on disparities in education for African-American students with special needs goes back to the beginning of his political career in the Virginia General Assembly in the late 1990s.

“Unfortunately, the situation in many ways has worsened rather than improved,” he stated in his letter.

Data from reports by the Legal Aid Justice Center and the Virginia Department of Education bear that out.

In a review done at the request of Richmond schools Superintendent Dana T. Bedden of data collected from fall 2013 to spring 2016, the Virginia Department of Education found that city students with special needs were suspended or expelled at a rate 2.5 times that of their non-disabled peers.

Separately, data filed with the Richmond NAACP’s complaint indicated that while African-American students comprised 76 percent of RPS’ total student population in the 2014-15 school year, 93 percent of short-term suspensions, 98 percent of long-term suspensions and 97 percent of expulsions involved African-American students.

Additionally, the Legal Aid Justice Center’s report shows that African-American students with disabilities in Henrico County were 6.7 times more likely to be disciplined with suspensions of 10 days or more. In Chesterfield, African-American students with disabilities are nearly four times more likely to be given long-term suspension that other students with disabilities.

“I am not in the mood to play racquetball,” McEachin said. “I need the federal government to come in and tell us what we need to do to clean up our act.”

Dr. Bedden said Wednesday that RPS is working with the Virginia Department of Education to develop a corrective action plan that includes professional development for teachers and improved services for students.

“We need to do better, and we recognize that,” he said. “That was why we requested analysis from the VDOE. But we also realize that we didn’t get here overnight, and we are not going to get out of this overnight.”

Bedden said some initiatives in place “are centered around cultural competence, dynamic multiple assessment and improving special instruction, while monitoring, to hold our students and staff accountable.”

While the problem may be complex, J.J. Minor, president of the Richmond Branch NAACP, said the solution is quite simple.

“The solution is a red sign with four letters — STOP. Stop discriminating against children with disabilities and African-American students because, while we have issues going on, there have got to be better alternatives,” he said.

Minor said he stands behind Rep. McEachin’s call for an investigation and hopes the data will be made available to the public. By exposing the disparities, he said, the school boards within the 4th Congressional District will be held accountable and called upon to design ways to fix the problems.

“We’re going to be looking into this as well to help our children any way we can,” he said.

Minor also suggested that a board or committee be created specifically to investigate and monitor incidents across the state.

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