The US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights will investigate allegations that the Fall River public schools are suspending black and Latino students at a disproportionate rate.
The complaint, filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union, states that the school system’s disciplinary practices discriminate against minority and special-education students. In the school year that ended in 2010, more than 25 percent of black students and 23 percent of Latino students in grades K-12 were suspended, compared to 13 percent of white students, according to federal statistics.
Among black students with disabilities, 42 percent of students were removed from school for disciplinary reasons. At the middle-school level, more than half of black and Latino students with disabilities had been suspended. The district suspended 20 percent of white students with disabilities, and 12 percent of students without disabilities.
Dan Losen, who directs a civil rights program at UCLA, which jointly filed the complaint, said the suspension disparities “stuck out like a sore thumb,” even as they mirrored a national divide.
“Suspensions harm all the kids involved,” Losen said. “But they are being meted out to these kids at a much higher rate.”
In a Dec. 5 letter to Losen and the ACLU of Massachusetts, the US civil rights agency said it planned to investigate the complaints and planned to meet with district officials within the week.
The ACLU said it was pleased the federal government was investigating the complaint, saying Fall River’s suspension rates “raise serious questions about whether the school district’s disciplinary practices benefit its students, particularly students of color and students with disabilities.”
Losen said the complaint seeks to “leverage improvements for the kids.” In its letter, the Office for Civil Rights said the investigation “in no way implies that OCR has made a determination with regard to the merits of this case.”
If investigators determine that a school has failed to comply with civil rights law, they will seek remedial action to resolve the complaint. If the school refuses, it risks losing federal funding.
The superintendent of the school system, Meg Mayo-Brown, could not be reached for comment Monday. William Flanagan, the city’s mayor, also could not be reached.
When the complaints were filed, Flanagan told the Globe that the claims were “misplaced” and that some parents had told him the schools were too lenient toward misbehaving students. At the time, Mayo-Brown said that new programs meant to improve classroom management had paid dividends and that more recent statistics showed a decline in suspensions for black, Latino, and special-education students.
According to the ACLU, the district suspended more than 18 percent of all students in the last school year, the state’s second-highest rate among noncharter systems.
Losen said suspending students has a number of negative consequences. It costs them time in class, often leaves them unsupervised for the day, and can alienate them from the school. Other punishments that allow the children to remain in class are more effective, he said.
“Even just being suspended one time is correlated with a much higher risk of dropping out,” he said. “Schools should use suspension as a measure of last resort.”