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SPLC complaint: Schools in Alabama town discriminating against black children

The SPLC filed a federal civil rights complaint today over discipline and arrest policies in Alabama’s Dothan public schools that disproportionately push African Americans and students with disabilities out of school for minor misconduct.

The complaint, which comes a week after the Dothan City Board of Education adopted revised discipline policies, describes deeply entrenched, systemic problems that the new policies fail to address. They include the practice of pushing students into the district’s alternative school, which criminalizes students and ultimately sets them up for failure.

The SPLC, which worked with the school board on the policy revisions, alleged in the complaint to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights that the district routinely violates the civil rights of black children and children with disabilities. The complaint comes a decade after the district was released from its federal desegregation order.

“Dothan’s most vulnerable children are being systematically railroaded and written off because of racially discriminatory practices that often treat normal adolescent behavior like criminal activity,” said Natalie Lyons, SPLC staff attorney. “We worked with the school district and were disappointed that the district did not adopt all of the necessary reforms to ensure that children of color and those with disabilities are treated fairly.”

In its recent policy revisions, the school board failed to adopt several reforms recommended by the SPLC, such as removing many vague and subjective offenses that give administrators broad discretion to discriminate against children of color.

The complaint cites statistics the SPLC presented to the school board in June. It notes African-American students represent approximately 55 percent of the district’s students but 100 percent of expulsions in 2015-16 and 85 percent or more of the students removed from class through practices such as suspension, in-school suspension and referral to alternative school. Disciplinary actions against students with disabilities have more than doubled since the 2013-14 school year.

Several examples of harsh and disparate discipline are highlighted in the complaint. A 16-year-old African-American student at Northview High School, for example, was sent to the district’s alternative school, P.A.S.S. Academy, for 30 days for receiving a stolen cell phone – even though a school administrator searched his bag and failed to find the phone. When it was later discovered that a white student had stolen the phone, the white student received only 10 days at the alternative school.

Hundreds of students are sent to P.A.S.S. for nonviolent adolescent misbehavior, even though the school supposedly serves as a last resort before expulsion is recommended. During the last school year, African-American students made up 90 percent of enrollment. The complaint describes how the school criminalizes students by treating them as dangerous criminals – subjecting them to physical searches where they must take off their shoes, socks and belts – even though nearly a third of the students sent there in 2015-16 were in elementary school.

The harsh discipline begins at a young age. In 2015 data provided to the Alabama Department of Education, the district reported that 83 percent of the disciplinary measures that year were against elementary school students – and more than half of all disciplinary actions were taken at three predominantly black elementary schools.

“The evidence is clear that the school district has been disproportionately subjecting black children and children with disabilities to harsh, punitive measures for years,” Lyons said. “Without significant reforms, these children will continue to bear the brunt of the district’s practices and many, sadly, will suffer lifelong consequences.”