Oklahoma City Public Schools, U.S. Education Department Reach Settlement to Address Disproportionate Discipline of Black Students

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Oklahoma City Public Schools, U.S. Education Department Reach Settlement to Address Disproportionate Discipline of Black Students

April 20, 2016

The U.S. Department of Education today reached a settlement agreement with the Oklahoma City Public Schools to address disproportionate discipline of black students. An investigation revealed black students were significantly overrepresented in disciplinary actions.

Before the Department's Office for Civil Rights had completed its probe, the district expressed an interest in resolving the case voluntarily, resulting in the agreement announced today. The agreement is aimed at correcting Oklahoma City's discipline practices to ensure that the district satisfies its civil rights obligations to its students going forward.

"I applaud the district for its commitment to improving its discipline policies, procedures and practices for the students it serves every school day, including through evaluation of its reliance on and training for school resource officers," said Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights. "I appreciate the positive steps the district took during the course of our investigation and I look forward to working with the district to implement this agreement."

OCR's investigation found that black students were considerably overrepresented in all of the district's disciplinary actions. For example, for the 2014-15 school year, OCR's investigation exposed a high rate of black students being referred for discipline as compared with white students. Notably, black students accounted for 42 percent of in-school suspensions although they represent only 26 percent of the population. Likewise, for the 2011-12 school year, black students received in-school and out-of-school suspensions, were referred to law enforcement, and were arrested for school-related incidents at statistically significant proportions compared to their enrollment in the district.

During the course of OCR's investigation, the district initiated an internal audit. Both OCR's investigation and the audit found scores of concerns including: incomplete and inconsistent recordkeeping; inconsistent provision of due process rights; that the district as an entity is inconsistent in its discipline practices; there are inconsistencies within individual schools themselves; there are inconsistencies in information provided to parents when their children were suspended; and that parameters of certain disciplinary sanctions are unclear, such as "defiance of authority" and "disrespect" among others.

In response, the district has undertaken a number of corrective steps, including initiating a review of its discipline policies and practices and its discipline code. The district also created the Office of School Climate and Student Discipline and hired a director of school climate and student discipline and three student behavior specialists.

The agreement, in part:

  • Designates an employee to serve as the district's discipline supervisor.
  • Prohibits exclusionary discipline to the maximum extent possible.
  • Requires the district to retain experts to advise the district on research-based strategies to prevent discrimination.
  • Implements revised policies and practices.
  • Requires training for staff and administrators and programs for students and parents to explain the policies and behavioral expectations.
  • Requires the district to provide teachers and administrators with the tools and training to support positive student behavior to prevent and address misconduct.
  • Requires school staff to employ a range of corrective measures before referring a student to disciplinary authorities.
  • Ensures a system of supports at each school to assess students who display behavior problems.
  • Addresses school climate issues.
  • Implements measures to engage students, staff and parents in the implementation of the revised policies, practices and procedures.
  • Requires a comprehensive review of the School Resource Officer program to assess the program's effectiveness and alignment with ensuring misbehavior is addressed in a manner that minimizes exclusionary discipline to the maximum extent possible.
  • Facilitates communication with the parent complainant should she choose to re-enroll her children.

A copy of the OCR letter to the Oklahoma City Public Schools can be found here. A copy of the agreement can be found here.

Today's agreement resolves one of three OCR investigations of the Oklahoma City district. The two ongoing investigations involve complaints alleging the district failed to provide male and female students with equal opportunity and access with respect to athletic activities. Additionally, the complaints allege that the district discriminated against students with disabilities with regard to the provision of a free appropriate public education.

OCR's mission is to ensure equal access to education and promote educational excellence throughout the nation through the vigorous enforcement of civil rights. OCR is responsible for enforcing federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination by educational institutions on the basis of disability, race, color, national origin, sex, and age, as well as the Boy Scouts of America Equal Access Act of 2001. For more information about OCR and how OCR processes civil rights cases, please visit OCR's website at www.ed.gov/ocr.

The Department of Education launched its Rethink Discipline initiative last year to assist school leaders in their efforts to reduce suspensions and expulsions and provide school environments that are safe, supportive, and conducive to teaching and learning. Rethink Discipline builds on the work of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative—a collaboration between the Departments of Education and Justice to support the use of school discipline practices that foster safe, supportive, and productive learning environments while keeping students in school.

Highlights from the Initiative's work include the School Climate and Discipline Guidance Package released by Education and Justice to provide schools with a roadmap to reduce the usage of exclusionary discipline practice and clarify schools' civil rights obligation to not discriminate on the basis of race, color, or national origin in the administration of school discipline.