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Chesterfield school leaders endorse plan to address disparity in discipline of African-American students

By Vanessa Remmers, Richmond Times-Dispatch
vremmers@timesdispatch.com, (804) 649-6243

A plan to improve disparities in how African-American students with disabilities are disciplined within Chesterfield County’s schools is moving forward.

On Friday, Chesterfield School Board members endorsed School Superintendent James Lane’s plan for additional full-time positions, expanding a social and emotional learning curriculum, and, at several struggling middle schools, implementing a remedial study skills program.

The plan is in response to a mandate Chesterfield received this year from the state for the first time. And Chesterfield wasn’t alone.

The worsening pattern within Chesterfield and Henrico counties of suspending black students with disabilities at disproportionately higher rates compared to other students with disabilities prompted the mandate from the state this year.

Chesterfield and Henrico are among seven school districts across the state required to set aside a certain amount of federal funds. Divisions receive the federal funds for students protected under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Richmond also received the mandate this year, but for a different reason.

Richmond was cited because for three years the city’s African-American students with disabilities have remained at least three times more likely to be identified as having “other health impairment” than other students with disabilities.

The state defines “other health impairment” as limited strength, vitality or alertness.

The mandated set-aside is meant to ensure funds are dedicated to address the pattern.

“This isn’t just a local problem. It’s a nationwide problem,” said Virginia Commonwealth University Assistant Professor Adai Tefera, whose research specialties include education policy and politics as well as race and disability.

The state sets parameters for how the funds under the mandate can be used, but local School Boards have some flexibility.

Chesterfield is spending $1.78 million this year on intervention-related services, much higher than what the division has voluntarily set aside in recent years.

“We thank the School Board for the support of not only our (coordinated early intervening services) program initiative but also our positive behavioral intervention support and equity initiatives in the past and are looking forward to continuing to address suspensions and address disparities,” Lane said.

School Board member Carrie Coyner also suggested using more volunteers for tutoring and mentoring services.

Chesterfield and Henrico have both lowered the overall number of suspensions. But disparities in the suspensions of certain groups of students remain.

Black students with disabilities remained at least three times more likely to be suspended long-term than other students with disabilities for three consecutive years in both school districts. In addition, that rate of suspension trended upward during that time.

In the 2014-15 school year, a Chesterfield African-American student with disabilities was 3.78 times more likely to be suspended long term compared with other students with disabilities. During that period, Henrico’s African-American students with disabilities were 6.7 times more likely to be suspended long term.

School leaders said it will likely take several years for the division to lower the rate of suspensions to the point where Chesterfield would be released from the mandate.

Tefera, the VCU assistant professor, said part of the overall problem is that African-American students are punished for more subjective offenses like “campus disruption” and harsher punishments tend to fall to African-American students.

Tefera said disparities in treatment of black and white students still existed even when studies have controlled for a student’s economic background.

“There’s something outside of issues of poverty. There is a racial bias that might be within teachers and leaders and that’s the issue,” she said.

Past strategies, Tefera said, especially among large school districts with changing demographics, have concentrated on fixing the students’ behavior. But successful intervention must also focus on the systems and structures around that student, she said.

“They say, ‘Let’s offer this group of students this specific program.’ You have to do that in conjunction with ongoing and in-depth professional development,” Tefera said.

As demographics shift, she added, school districts must also find ways to include students of color such as looking at the problems caused by classroom segregation.

Within Chesterfield, the population of white students continues to decline, while the Hispanic student population and students considered economically disadvantaged increase at the fastest paces.

Lane’s plan includes an equity coordinator who is charged with getting at the root causes for the disparity.

It also calls for five behavior intervention specialists who would train teachers and tailor the added services to individual schools. The teacher training would include topics such as culturally relevant teaching practices. Another $130,000 would go toward teacher development and technical assistance.

Chesterfield schools will also add an intervention training specialist who will focus on restorative practices, a strategy Lane called “very effective in the research.”

Using restorative practices means disciplining students in nonpunitive ways, by focusing on repairing harm done and engaging everyone involved rather than excluding the misbehaving student.

Another intervention specialist would concentrate on trauma-informed care.

“We’re hearing of a lot of students, especially those new to our country, that are coming to us with some significant issues as they transition into the community, frankly with some traumatic experiences in their past,” Lane has said.

In addition, an added six social workers would mean that every Chesterfield building could have a psychologist or social worker in the school every other day.

The expanded social and emotional learning curriculum as well as a remedial study skills program at several struggling middle schools will supplement those added positions.