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Suspensions in Fall River under federal investigation

Banner Staff

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) recently launched an investigation of out-of-school suspension practices in Fall River Public Schools (FRPS).

The investigation is in response to a complaint alleging those practices disproportionately harm students of color and students with disabilities and violate federal Civil Rights laws.

The complaint was filed in June by the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at the Civil Rights Project of UCLA.

In a letter sent earlier this month, OCR stated that it would investigate potential violations of both laws.

The complaint cited OCR data from the 2009-2010 school year, which showed that FRPS 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.

The complaint highlights unusually high rates in FRPS for all students, suggesting that the district’s policies and practices around discipline are generally unsound, but harm some groups much more than others, according to a statement released by the ACLU.

Among the most notable concerns is the exclusion of students with disabilities on disciplinary grounds. Specifically, FRPS suspended 23.8 percent of all students with disabilities.

Suspension rates were even higher when race and disability overlapped. The district suspended over 42 percent of all black students with disabilities and 50 percent or more of black and Latino middle school students with disabilities.

New data and research have corroborated the facts asserted in the June 2012 complaint. For example, the Massachusetts Department of Education’s “Indicators Report” for the 2011-2012 school year showed that FRPS suspended 18.4 percent of all students in first through 12th grades. That was the second highest suspension rate among all non-charter school districts in the state.

Meanwhile, new research confirms the complaint’s criticism of out-of-school suspension in general: It does not help students, but alternative disciplinary practices do.

OCR’s decision to investigate does not mean FRPS has violated federal law.

“We are grateful that the Office for Civil Rights is giving our complaint careful attention,” said Matthew Segal, legal director of the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Fall River’s high rates of out-of-school suspension raise serious questions about whether the school district’s disciplinary practices benefit its students, particularly students of color and students with disabilities.”

The Center for Civil Rights Remedies is an initiative of the Civil Rights Project (CRP) at UCLA, which has been national in scope since its inception at Harvard Law School by Professors Christopher Edley Jr. and Gary Orfield.

Dan Losen, Director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies, said, “…Fall River’s frequent and disparate suspensions of students of color and students with disabilities is a problem that can and must be remedied.”

Material from the ACLU of Massachusetts and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies contributed to this report.