Discipline Disparities

Eureka City Schools releases final assessment in ACLU lawsuit



The Eureka City School District has released a comprehensive report detailing actions it will take to address allegations of discriminatory practices against minority students. In January, the district settled a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Center for Youth Law, which alleged the district practiced disciplinary bias against minority students, that staff made racially and sexually insensitive comments to students, that the school failed to accommodate African-American and Native American students with disabilities, and that district administrators allowed racial taunting and bullying by ignoring complaints from students and their parents.

The 110-page report released June 4 was produced by the University of Oregon Institute on Violence and Destructive Behavior and the University of Oregon Law School and Center for Alternative Dispute Resolution. It includes measures to reduce or eliminate "exclusionary discipline practices, bullying and harassment," and "equity of special education services."

The lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of four students at Eureka City Schools, alleged that students were exposed to a "racially hostile educational environment" and cited incidents in which students of color were assaulted, unjustly punished and subjected to derogatory comments by students and staff. The assessment summarized in the report was one of the terms of the settlement, which also includes a $700,000 payout (85 percent of which went to paying ACLU and NCYL lawyers).

In compiling the report, researchers went through three years of ECS disciplinary files to assess whether there was a pattern of disciplinary bias, concluding that American Indian/Alaska Native students in the district "have a higher risk of being suspended compared to all other students, while white and Latino students have a lower risk of being suspended compared to all others." African-American and multi-racial students were also at a disproportionately higher risk of being suspended for "disruptive/defiant" behavior. These findings were in keeping with national trends of an "over-representation of vulnerable groups (race/ethnicity, gender, special education, sexual orientation) ... in exclusionary discipline and subsequent juvenile justice referrals."

In a phone interview, Eureka City Schools Superintendent Fred Van Vleck said he was not surprised by the findings, but stressed that the disproportionality in suspension rates could result from a number of factors.

"A huge indicator of students' discipline problems is poverty," Van Vleck said. "Students who have a higher poverty level have a higher disciplinary rate as well. How do we fix that disproportionality?"

In order to address uneven disciplinary practices, federal and state laws and policies have promoted adoption of School-wide Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS). The student discipline strategy is meant to "prevent behavioral problems" by clarifying, teaching and rewarding expected behaviors. At the time the University of Oregon made its assessment, Zane and Winship middle schools were implementing this system to satisfaction, but Eureka High School "showed several areas in need of improvement."

The University of Oregon concluded that SWPBIS alone was insufficient, and recommended that the school district also implement Restorative Discipline measures. Restorative Discipline calls upon educators to examine their "culturally conditioned biases" and create an atmosphere of mutual respect with students through open and honest dialogue.

Van Vleck said that Restorative Discipline moves away from the previous "one-size-fits-all" approach.

"If one student ... steals something ... whatever it takes to get [that] student to not steal again would be different from another student," Van Vleck said.

The survey included results from three focus groups, with students, parents and staff members voluntarily responding from Eureka High School, Zane Middle School and Winship Middle School. Focus groups were asked to describe the overall climate of their school, discuss their relationships with teachers and disciplinary processes, and suggest changes to how bullying is addressed.

Staff members were given a symbolic racism test in which they were asked for their opinions on statements like, "It's really a matter of some people not trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder they could be just as well off as whites" and "Over the last few years, blacks have gotten more economically than they deserve." Because the survey was conducted anonymously, researchers were not able to show a direct link between responses and disciplinary actions. Sample sizes in the poll were small, with 35 staff members from Eureka High School, 11 from Winship and 24 from Zane answering the questions.

Ten percent of those polled for Winship Middle School said they believed that African-Americans were responsible for creating "most" of the racial tension in the United States, while 60 percent said they were only responsible for "some." Twenty-five percent of staff polled at Eureka High and 30 percent of those polled at Winship said they disagree with the statement, "Over the last few years, blacks have gotten less than they deserve." And 21 percent of staff polled at Zane said they thought there was "just a little" discrimination "against blacks ... limiting their chances to get ahead."

In student surveys, Winship rated lowest in a survey of how African-American students perceived procedural justice in their school. African-American and multi-racial students reported the highest rates of bullying at Winship and Zane.

The overarching theme of parent focus groups seems to be a lack of consistency between school administrators and teachers when it comes to discipline. Several said that there needs to be better a rapport between students and teachers, and that expectations for students need to be clearer. Student focus groups echoed these findings.

"There are areas we need to work on," Van Vleck said. "The good news is that we're working on them. What is happening in Eureka is not unique to Eureka City Schools. It's a systemic problem across the United States. I'm just happy that we have the resources to address it."

Those resources come in the form of a $3.5 million school climate transformation grant awarded to the school district from the U.S. Department of Education. Although the grant money came in around the same time as the settlement, Van Vleck said the two are not related. There is some overlap in how the grant money will be used, however. The report required in the settlement, for example, which to date has cost $30,000, was partially paid for by grant money.

When asked about staff responses to the symbolic racism test, Van Vleck said the quiz went out as an email at the end of the school year, and that participation was voluntary. Because of that, those who responded may not be representative of the district and its schools as a whole.

The final recommendations of the report are for the school to integrate a curriculum that includes building relationships between students and teachers, utilizing peer mediation and monitoring disproportionality in discipline practices. Project leaders will be working with a district leadership team and the school board to implement the plan within the next 90 days.

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