Federal civil rights investigations are looking into whether the school systems in Chesterfield County, Henrico County and Richmond discriminate against African-American students.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation into Chesterfield schools several months ago. Henrico is the subject of two ongoing investigations, while a review of Richmond schools launched in April. It’s unclear when the probes might conclude.
At least one of the inquiries — the one in Chesterfield — followed U.S. Rep. A. Donald McEachin’s request in March for an investigation into disparities in student treatment within his 4th District. The district encompasses 16 localities, including Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico.
The Democratic congressman’s call came the same day that a Richmond Times-Dispatch article detailed higher suspension rates and over-identification of African-American students with disabilities within several local school divisions.
All of the federal investigations are looking into whether the disciplinary policies and practices of the school divisions discriminate against African-American students. One of the investigations in Henrico is looking into whether the district excludes African-American students from college and career readiness programs as well as higher-level courses.
The Richmond investigation also includes a review of whether the school division discriminates against students with disabilities.
This past school year, the Virginia Department of Education cited Henrico and Chesterfield for suspending black students with disabilities at a disproportionately high rate over several years. Chesterfield, Henrico and Richmond are among seven Virginia school districts mandated to set aside federal money received under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act this year to combat the pattern.
In the 2014-15 school year, an African-American student with disabilities in Chesterfield was nearly four 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.
The state Department of Education cited Richmond because the city’s African-American students with disabilities have been more likely to be identified as having an “other health impairment” — defined by the federal government as having limited strength, vitality or alertness — than other students with disabilities.
McEachin called the statistics “disturbing and frustrating” and has asked the Office of Civil Rights to keep him apprised of the progress of the investigations.
McEachin and Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., recently spearheaded a letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — signed by more than 60 members of Congress, including Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va. — urging her to take steps toward reducing excessive discipline in schools.
The federal office contacted Chesterfield’s school district several months ago, informing officials that they were going to conduct a divisionwide investigation. The division provided the office with contact information for individuals within the school division, but Chesterfield officials haven’t heard back from the federal office.
“The school division looks forward to providing our data, practices and policies to (the Office of Civil Rights) for review,” Chesterfield schools spokesman Shawn Smith wrote in an email. “We feel confident that our work is in compliance with the law and our data is significantly improving each year. We will work closely with OCR on any suggestions or requirements for improvement.”
Henrico schools spokesman Andy Jenks said his district looks forward to continuing to cooperate with the Office of Civil Rights and demonstrating its continued commitment to equal opportunities for all students. He added that the school system was recently recognized for reducing student suspensions by the National School Boards Association.
“We know there is more work to be done, and building on this momentum will continue to be one of our top priorities,” Jenks said.
The federal Education Department did not immediately provide information about the percentage of complaints the Office for Civil Rights agrees to investigate.
Staff writer Michael O’Connor contributed to this report.