In an effort to reduce racial disparities in student suspension rates, Henrico County Public Schools announced a partnership Monday with the Legal Aid Justice Center, a Virginia-based advocacy group that offers legal representation and other services to low-income people.
Under the agreement, which has been in the works for about nine months, Henrico schools will bring in an independent consultant to help reduce the total number of suspensions as well as narrow the racial differences in suspensions.
According to the most recent statistics, about 75 percent of suspensions in Henrico involved black students, who make up about 36 percent of the student population.
“We’re pleased that the Legal Aid Justice Center was so responsive to our mutual desire for positive change,” Deputy Superintendent Patrick Kinlaw said in a news release. “We believe this partnership will help keep more students where they belong, which is in the classroom.”
Under the partnership, the district will continue to give the School Board quarterly presentations on student discipline and work with Legal Aid to determine whether adequate policies are in place.
“We, too, are pleased that Henrico County Public Schools recognizes the urgency in tackling the problem of discipline disparities,” said Angela Ciolfi, the legal director of JustChildren, a Legal Aid program.
“Although decades’ worth of research has invalidated out-of-school suspension as a tool for improving student behavior, we don’t need research to tell us that children need to be in school and learning in order to be successful,” she said.
The consultant will be Susan Barrett, a Henrico resident and director of the PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention and Support) Regional Training and Technical Assistance Center at Sheppard Pratt Health System in Maryland, according to school officials.
Schools spokesman Andy Jenks said Barrett will be working free of charge, and that there will be no additional costs at the onset. He added that Barrett will be making recommendations that may entail added programs or staffing costs.
In 2012, a national study by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA showed that Henrico had the highest disparity between suspensions of black and white students of any school district in Virginia, and among the highest in the nation involving black students with disabilities.
The report brought scrutiny from state Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, and Varina District Supervisor Tyrone E. Nelson, who wrote a letter to Superintendent Patrick J. Russo requesting an explanation and a plan to deal with the issue.
“It’s a start,” Nelson said of the partnership Monday. “I’m appreciative that the school system is seeing this as a real issue.”
Russo has been on paid leave for more than a month as the School Board reviews several unspecified concerns about him.
School officials say the total number of out-of-school suspensions has dropped from 12,180 in the 2008-2009 school year to 7,604 in 2012-2013.
Though the number of suspensions has fallen, the racial disparities have persisted, officials said, particularly in the county’s middle schools.
The most recent disciplinary statistics available were presented to the School Board in March, when officials showed that roughly 3 of every 4 suspensions for the first semester of 2012-2013 involved a black student.
At the elementary level, 72 percent of suspensions involved black students. At the high schools, the percentage was 74 percent. The middle schools had the highest disparity, with 77 percent of suspensions involving black students.
In the past, school officials have indicated that the suspension data is affected by a small number of habitual offenders.
In the March presentation, officials noted that 0.2 percent of Henrico students made up 31 percent of the suspensions.
The most common suspension offenses were defiance, disruption, and obscene language or gestures.
The five schools with the highest number of frequently suspended students were L. Douglas Wilder Middle School, Henrico High School, Highland Springs High School, Fairfield Middle School and John Rolfe Middle School.
In an interview, Ciolfi said she can’t speak specifically as to what might be the cause of the disparities in Henrico, but she said that researchers have generally ruled out poverty levels and behavioral differences as major factors.
“There are lots of hypotheses,” Ciolfi said. “And I don’t think anybody knows for sure.”
Those hypotheses include resource inequity, school climate, and black students being more likely to be suspended for subjective offenses such as disruption or disrespect rather than objective offenses such as use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs.
Ciolfi also said disparities have been reduced elsewhere by professional development programs.
She said her organization will respond to calls from parents or students who feel they have been disciplined unfairly by bringing their concerns to the school district’s attention.
“So far we have always been able to do that and we were quite excited that Henrico was really interested in addressing what we see as an urgent situation,” Ciolfi said.
The new schools partnership also drew praise from E. Drusilla Bridgeforth, the president of the Henrico chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“The goal of the NAACP is that every student of color receives a quality public education,” Bridgeforth said in the news release. “This also means fair discipline, equitable resources, eliminating racial disparity in the suspension and expulsion of students. We are looking forward to great results that this partnership with HCPS will yield.”