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Brockton school officials deny claims of racial bias in discipline

After a November altercation between two Brockton High School students led to a suspension and criminal charges for one of them, some students and parents say that minorities at the high school are disciplined more harshly and suspended more often than their white classmates.

The allegations have frustrated school and district officials, who contend the allegations and attention they’ve received have overshadowed gains in academics and disciplinary improvements in a district that is about 80 percent minority.

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Superintendent Kathleen A. Smith said the department is taking the allegations seriously. Smith recently agreed to meet with the president of the Brockton area branch of the NAACP and a New Jersey-based consultant specializing in school race relations, who requested the meeting after reading news media reports about the allegations.

For her part, however, Smith said instead of hiring a consultant, she plans to move forward with a plan she unveiled before the start of the school year to create an advocacy group of members of several immigrant and minority community organizations to better engage and communicate with parents.

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The intent is to “talk about discipline for our children and multiple pathways,” Smith said, referring to alternatives to out-of-school suspensions. She hopes to have the group together by late spring.

The November incident happened just days after the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice released a report contending that in the 2012-2013 school year, Massachusetts public schools disproportionately punished students of color and those with disabilities with suspensions. The report listed Brockton as fifth in the state among districts that year with the highest rates of suspensions, at 10.8 percent. The rate was slightly higher last school year at 11.1 percent.

Michael Dockery, whose son was in the November altercation, believes the youth was unfairly punished and denied due process. His son said he accidentally bumped into a female classmate and apologized, but the girl pushed him back. Dockery’s son then pushed the girl, who began to swing and scratch him, until he held her arms down, he said.

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The girl reported the incident to an assistant housemaster, who held a hearing with Dockery and his son the next day. Dockery said it was decided his son would be transferred out of the class both students shared so they would no longer have to interact.

But it wasn’t until after the hearing closed that Dockery said he was informed his son would be suspended for three days and charged with two counts of assault and battery, including one with a dangerous weapon. In January, the 16-year-old boy was sentenced to six months’ probation by a juvenile court judge.

“I am very outraged. . . . My son’s situation could’ve been handled in school,” Dockery said. “They’re kids. These people are trying to give kids a [criminal] record; that doesn’t make sense at all.”

The charges were filed at the request of the school’s resource officer, who is a member of the Brockton Police Department, according to a police report. The report includes an account by the 16-year-old female student in which she stated that Dockery’s son bumped into her on purpose and that after she pushed him away, he grabbed her, put her in a headlock, pushed her to the ground, and then pushed her against some lockers.

According to the report, there is surveillance footage of the incident, but Dockery said school officials told him he would need to get a lawyer to subpoena the video because it is property of the Police Department. He retained Brockton attorney John Pavlos, who successfully sued the city on behalf of the parents of a first-grader who was suspended and accused of sexually harassing a female classmate in 2006.

After the three-day suspension, Dockery had his son pass a petition around school that was signed by about 100 students, alleging disciplinary discrimination against minorities. Both Dockery’s son and the female student are minorities.

With help of a civic advocate who helps students caught in the court system, Dockery galvanized parents and students to attend community forums on the issue and voice concerns to the School Committee.

‘I am very outraged. . . . My son’s situation could’ve been handled in school. They’re kids. These people are trying to give kids a [criminal] record.’

Michael Dockery, parent 
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Thomas J. Minichiello Jr., School Committee vice chairman, said the board is open to meaningful dialogue about the issues raised, but added that when it comes to students, “We conduct ourselves based on people’s actions, not people’s race.”

Dockery wrote to Smith in November accusing the school of denying his son due process and of routinely punishing minority students more harshly. He has sent copies of his complaint to the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, and the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights.

Smith estimates she has met or discussed the issue with Dockery a total of eight hours, insisting his son’s discipline was based on his actions.

Brockton High principal Sharon Wolder denied the discrimination allegations. Citing a state law that took effect last July requiring schools to implement more alternatives to suspensions, she said the school’s suspension rate is at 5 percent, compared with 16 percent last year.

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.
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