The American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and a UCLA research center on Wednesday filed a complaint against Fall River Public Schools, alleging its suspension policies disproportionately harm black and Latino students and youths with disabilities.
In the complaint filed with the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the ACLU and the UCLA group said that according to federal statistics for the 2009-10 academic year, the school district suspended 25.9 percent of black students, 23.1 percent of Latino students, and 13.4 percent of white students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grade.
In the same school year, Fall River also suspended 23.8 percent of all students with disabilities, including 42.1 percent of black students in that category, according to the complaint.
Superintendent Meg Mayo-Brown said the district saw a decline in suspensions for the student groups identified in the complaint during the last academic year, as new programs were launched to help improve classroom management and student development.
According to data that Mayo-Brown said was unofficial for the academic year that just ended, about 24 percent of all black students and roughly 23 percent of all Latino students were suspended. About 15 percent of white students received suspensions, the data show.
The complaint states that in 2010, just 721 of the 3,608 incidents leading to suspension were “criminal, drug or tobacco-related, or violent” and that too many students are suspended for minor infractions.
“That could be the case,” Mayo-Brown said, adding the district is examining its data to see if alternatives to suspension are possible more often.
And in a statement released by the ACLU on Wednesday, she said she is optimistic that the district can work with the ACLU and the Department of Education to address the suspension issue.
However, Mayor William A. Flanagan, who chairs the School Committee, said he thinks the claims are off base.
“I find the ACLU’s claims to be misplaced, and their allegations cast a negative image on our city,” he said, adding that teachers, principals, and administrators in the school district are compassionate and some parents have told him they believe school disciplinary policies are too lenient.
The complaint states that while the ACLU and the UCLA group do not suspect the school district of intentional discrimination, its policies are harming students of color and disabled youths.
The filing comes three months after the US Department of Education reported that nationally, black students are far more likely than their peers to be suspended or expelled, according to data from the 2009-2010 year.
Frequent suspensions have been linked to dropping out and a higher risk of involvement in the juvenile justice system, the complaint says.
The ACLU and the UCLA center propose several alternatives to out-of-school suspension in the complaint, including in-school suspension, which they say provides students with supervision and helps them avoid falling behind in class.
A spokesman for the Education Department said the Boston office has received the complaint and will determine if an investigation is necessary.
The department can withdraw federal funding from an institution that refuses to negotiate changes, among other sanctions, its website states.
JC Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the office has not received complaints in recent years related to disparities in Fall River suspensions.