The Matthews family

Gregory and Tonie Matthews wanted Henrico County’s School Board to agree to send their son, Gregory “Junior” Matthews Jr. (center), to the Faison Center. They have since moved out of the district.

There is the nonverbal 15-year-old diagnosed with severe autism who struggles to write his first and last name legibly despite going to school since kindergarten.

There are the parents who said their children have been labeled for some kind of disability or impairment without a sufficient explanation. Still other parents have said their children who needed extra resources in school were instead met with double-digit suspensions over several years.

All of the students are African-American children with disabilities, and all were enrolled in public schools in the region. And now that data tracking student discipline for the 2015-16 school year have arrived, the state has stepped in once again.

Four local school divisions have been flagged by the Virginia Department for Education for disproportionate punishment of African-American students with disabilities, who remained at least three times more likely to face long-term suspensions than other students with disabilities. However, there are signs of improvement. Nearly all school systems narrowed the gaps compared to the prior school year.

Chesterfield County, Henrico County, Petersburg and Richmond are among 14 school systems across the state required to set aside 15 percent of the money they receive under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act, or IDEA. The money is required to go toward “coordinated early intervening services.”

The mandate comes amid ongoing federal investigations of complaints or overall practices for all four school divisions by the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. Henrico also recently announced plans to bring in high-profile consultants to review its special education program.

School officials and advocates across the region agree something must be done.

“When children are suspended from school, they are more likely to experience academic failure, drop out of school, have substance abuse issues, have mental health needs, and become involved in the justice system,” Amy Woolard, Legal Aid Justice Center attorney, said following the release of a report about Virginia’s suspension practices.

The October report concluded that even though the total suspension rate across the state has dropped in recent years, gaps remain, especially for African-American students.

African-American students in Virginia were suspended about four times as much as Hispanic and white students in 2015-16, according to the report. In total, Virginia schools issued more than 131,500 out-of-school suspensions during the 2015-16 school year.

The four local school divisions triggered state involvement because African-American students with disabilities remained at least three times more likely to be suspended long-term than other students with disabilities for three consecutive years.

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It was the second year in a row that Chesterfield, Richmond and Henrico faced the mandate, and the first for Petersburg.

Henrico’s discipline gap remains the highest in the region. An African-American student with disabilities there was 6.4 times more likely to be suspended long-term in 2015-16 than other students with disabilities. The year before that, the figure was 6.7.

In Petersburg, an African-American student with disabilities was 6.1 times more likely to receive a long-term suspension than other students with disabilities in 2015-16.

Two school years before that, the city had the highest gap in the region at 10.7. Petersburg was also recently flagged for its shorter-term out-of-school suspensions, which fell to African-American students with disabilities 3.5 times more than other students with disabilities in 2015-16.

Julie McConnell, an attorney who runs the Children’s Defense Clinic at the University of Richmond, said the children who would have in the past received long-term suspensions or expulsions are now getting shorter-term suspensions.

The overall trend is the same, she said. The vast majority of her clients continue to be African-American students, or students with disabilities. And they have been pushed out of school for such offenses as fighting or possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“Generally, I’ve seen the same type of problems, but school systems are more creative with how they are dealing with the problems with things such as alternative schools or shorter-term suspensions. There are still issues with students with disabilities not being taught in general education classrooms,” she said.

Last year was the first time that Chesterfield faced the mandate following three years of a persistent and worsening pattern. Now, the numbers are trending in the opposite direction.

In the 2015-16 school year, a Chesterfield African-American student with disabilities was 3.3 times more likely to receive a long-term suspension compared with other students with disabilities. That’s a decrease from last year, when that number was 3.78.

Within the region, the Richmond schools district was flagged the most times by the state for the 2015-16 school year, though the city showed a dramatic drop in out-of-school suspensions.

An African-American student with disabilities was 3.8 times more likely to receive a long-term suspension compared to other students with disabilities, a decrease from 8.5 times more likely from the previous school year.

The city, however, was flagged in other categories: for a 3 times more likely ratio for in-school suspensions of African-American students with disabilities, and for over-identifying African-American students for disabilities.

For three years, the city’s African-American students with disabilities have remained at least three times more likely to be identified as having an “other health impairment” or having an “emotional disability” compared to other students with disabilities.

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School divisions across the region are using some similar practices as they seek to address the issue. Fifteen percent of IDEA funds translates to roughly $1.4 million and $1.78 million for Henrico and Chesterfield, respectively.

Officials from Henrico and Chesterfield are building on programs that focus on restorative justice, social emotional learning and trauma-informed care, all strategies that the Justice Center has deemed effective.

“Many of the students are coming in with significant issues, and we want to make sure staff is prepared to deal with students,” Chesterfield’s director of special education, Sam Hollins, said of trauma-informed care training for teachers. “We hear from ESL (English as a Second Language) teachers that it is needed.”

McConnell said there is a long way to go before teachers can understand the root causes of a student’s behavior through a trauma lens, but was encouraged to hear local school divisions using that language as well as restorative practice language.

Using restorative practices means disciplining students in a nonpunitive way, by focusing on repairing harm done and engaging everyone involved rather than excluding the misbehaving student. McConnell said restorative practice implementation caused a dramatic turnaround in recidivism rates in Fairfax County’s schools.

In a classroom, it can mean an offender, victim and facilitator as well as staff, family or other students all sit in a circle. The dialogue focuses on what harm was done, with the offender taking responsibility, then developing a plan for how everyone will contribute to repairing the harm.

Chesterfield leaders are also expanding a social emotional curriculum into another six elementary schools for a total of 12 schools.

A shift from the more traditional model of simply teaching students academic material, social and emotional learning focuses on a different set of skills. Students concentrate on self-awareness, social awareness, relationship skills, self-management and responsible decision-making.

They are taught empathy, how to recognize their emotions and how to regulate those emotions, among other things. That includes positive reinforcement for good behavior, such as celebrating a positive office referral.

In Henrico, social emotional support is geared toward counseling, and psychologists and social workers are assigned to just one school. Caseloads for clinicians range between 20 and 30 students, officials said, which coincides with a social emotional curriculum.

In Chesterfield, added social workers will mean that each school has access to a social worker or school psychologist at least every other day this upcoming school year.

The Richmond director of special education was unavailable for comment. Last year, Richmond planned to spend $895,647 to reduce its over-identification in special education by putting the money toward “academic and behavior supports for at-risk general education students” in kindergarten through third grade.

In Petersburg, technology and relationship-building are big pieces that have helped already, said Torrey Manson, the supervisor of special education.

He said the city is still in discussion with VDOE over what the set-aside money will be used for. But he commended the difference made by greater numbers of Chromebooks and digital discover books, Kagan strategies, schoolwide programs on character development and student expectations, and teacher training. Kagan strategies encourage students to be more engaged while learning through such things as group work and hands-on activities.

“We weren’t doing as much. Now, we are focused on this area,” he said.

School divisions are expected to be informed if they face the mandate once again by December.

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