Southern Poverty Law Center files discrimination complaint against Jefferson Parish schools

Thursday, May 17, 2012 - 1:19pm

New Orleans, La. — The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed a federal civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education today that describes how discriminatory policies of the Jefferson Parish Public School System have pushed a disproportionate number of black students and students with disabilities into alternative schools, where they often languish for months or even years before returning to school.

The complaint, filed with the department’s Office of Civil Rights, describes how the district’s alternative school policies have resulted in students with disabilities accounting for 52 percent of referrals to alternative schools, when they represent only 11 percent of the district’s student population. Black students account for 78 percent of all alternative school referrals even though they are only 46 percent of the district’s student population.

These students are often referred to alternative schools for minor misconduct, such as disrespectful behavior, use of profanity, disrupting class and horseplay. This is the second discrimination complaint the SPLC has filed against the school district. A complaint was filed with the Office for Civil Rights in January citing racial disparities in school-based arrests.

“Jefferson Parish’s alternative school policies are cutting short the futures of countless African-American students and students with disabilities,” said Eden Heilman, managing attorney for the SPLC’s Louisiana office. “If the district cares about providing a quality education to all of its students, it will end these discriminatory policies.”

The district’s policies also result in these students being held at alternative schools for far longer than their peers. Students with disabilities average a staggering 223.9 days in alternative school, compared to an average stay of 94.5 days for students without disabilities. Black high school students have an average stay of 115.3 days, compared to 74.4 days for white high school students.

The district’s strict alternative school exit policy – a system where students earn points to win the opportunity to return to their regular school – has resulted in lengthy stays for students with disabilities. Since the exit policy awards points based on a student’s behavior, students with emotional or behavioral disabilities face a daunting task of winning their release from the alternative school.

The SPLC’s complaint describes a seventh-grader who suffered from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The student was referred to alternative school for the first time in April 2007 as a second-grader for minor misconduct, such as not following directions and inappropriate classroom behavior. He has spent most of the last five school years in alternative school because he’s struggled to complete the stringent exit criteria.

The complaint also describes the experience of a ninth-grader suffering from an emotional disability. The student was referred to alternative schools but recently withdrew from school because his disability made it difficult for him to pass the exit criteria.

The district also discriminates against students through policies that delay their entry into the alternative schools, leaving them sitting out of any school for days or weeks at a time.

Once these students are at the alternative school, they receive an inferior and unequal education. Alternative school students are placed in front of a computer screen where they work through a series of four online academic courses – regardless of their ability or needs. There is one teacher in the room who is there solely to answer questions. Students with disabilities do not receive accommodations they may need.

“School discipline should never deprive a child of an education, but, sadly, that is what happens every day the Jefferson Parish school district continues enforcing these discriminatory policies,” Heilman said.

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