Racial disproportionality plagues district special ed.

Racial disproportionality plagues district special ed.

(Va.) Officials in one of Virginia’s largest school districts are looking to revise a number of policies and practices related to special education in the wake of a report raising racial inequality issues.

Henrico County Public Schools, which serves more than 50,000 students living just outside the city of Richmond, issued 75 percent of the nearly 6,000 suspensions last year to black students although they represent only 35 percent of overall student enrollment.

The analysis also found that black students in the district’s special education program were close to six times more likely to be disciplined than any other subgroup of students with disabilities.

Roscoe D. Cooper, the only black person on the Henrico School Board, said the findings were both stark and troubling.

“I personally empathize with the parents and guardians who feel frustrated and excluded,” Cooper said during the board’s September meeting. “I know firsthand the anxiety, frustration—and even the stigma—that’s associated oftentimes with accessing special education services for a child.”

The problems facing Henrico schools is not unique. According to the U.S. Department of Education, black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times that of white students while SWD are twice as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions than their mainstream peers.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, states are required to identify districts with “significant disproportionality” in special education—a term used to describe not just higher disciplinary rates but also higher rates of identification and placement too.

Henrico, which is the state’s sixth largest district and includes 72 schools, has also seen a big jump in legal costs associated with special education services. Expenses for mediation or due process hearings went from just over $100,000 in 2015 to almost $1 million last year.

The new report, drafted by the state’s former secretary of education, found that the district employed too many inexperienced teachers and part-time aides—neither of which had enough time to spend with students.

Among the recommendations is that the district should develop a plan for specifically reducing “exclusionary discipline practices.” They said that the district’s Code of Student Conduct could be updated to better reflect flexibility in making disciplinary decisions. District staff should also undertake additional training to tame down bias and should improve existing programs and lines of communication with families.

Other recommendations include upgrading several part-time positions to full-time roles, implementing more professional development programs, and creating new special education policies and procedures.

School officials said they will convene a working group with faculty and staff that will take input from school families and other stakeholders to develop an action plan based on the report’s recommendations.

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