Civil Rights Complaint Challenges Tracking and Discipline in South Orange-Maplewood School District

October 10, 2014

NEWARK -- Civil rights organizations filed a complaint late yesterday (PDF) with the federal Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) urging an investigation into New Jersey’s South Orange-Maplewood School District’s practices of tracking and school discipline that affect students differently based on race and disability status.

The complaint was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of New Jersey, and the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. The groups charge the school district's tracking and discipline practices disproportionately confine students of color to lower-level classes and punish students of color and students with disabilities to a greater degree.

“These problems are all too common in school districts across the country, and the numbers in South Orange-Maplewood are particularly troubling,” said ACLU-NJ senior staff attorney Alexander Shalom. “We've been meeting with officials from South Orange-Maplewood in the hopes that they address this issue and become a partner in building a more democratic, equitable learning environment for all children.”

The complaint, brought under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, outlines the scope of the disparate impact wrought by the district’s policies and recommendations to remedy the inequalities in the school system. It says that the policies and practices in effect impact different populations unfairly, even if those policies have a neutral intent.

The South Orange-Maplewood School District is among the New Jersey school districts with the highest racial disparities in tracking and student discipline. While white students make up slightly less than half of the student body, 70 percent of the higher-level classes are filled by white students, while 70 percent of the lower-level classes are filled by black students.

“Researchers know two things: tracking provides no concrete benefit and even harms students, and out-of-school suspension should be treated as a last resort because of its disruptive effects on both children and the learning environment,” said Courtney Bowie, an attorney with the ACLU's Racial Justice Program. "The small investment of time and resources for South Orange-Maplewood to overhaul these two conventions will pay off in the form of more engaged students who perform at higher levels than their peers in other schools.”

Based on the same data from the 2011-2012 school year, black students had a 15.9 percent chance of being suspended, compared to the overall suspension risk of 10.7 percent. Black students were also more than 4.5 times more likely to face out-of-school suspension than their white peers, while Hispanic students were slightly more than twice as likely to face out-of-school suspension compared to their white peers. Additionally, despite federal and state mandates requiring support and accommodation for students with disabilities, these students are more than 2.5 times as likely to face out-of-school suspension as their peers. Independent of disability status, black students have a 16.1 percent suspension rate versus white students’ rate of 2.7 percent.

The personal story of a student of color, plaintiff C.B., illustrates the effects of the disparate impact of the district’s practices and policies in the lives of individual young people. This student, an academically high-performing sophomore, met the pre-requisites for placement in Advanced Placement Calculus. Despite her stellar academic record, she was not recommended for the course she would have needed to take to qualify for AP Calculus. Her teachers had consistently placed her in the class level below the highest level without her parents’ knowledge and with no explanation. Repeatedly, when her s parents asked why her daughter was not placed in the highest level, school staff could not provide an answer.

“We hope that our action will prompt the district to replace its detrimental reliance on exclusion with methods that will improve the school climate for all children and dramatically reduce the large discipline gap along the lines of race and disability status documented in the complaint,” said Daniel Losen, director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. “Ultimately, anti-discrimination law requires the rejection of the status quo in the South Orange-Maplewood School District. All students, regardless of their race or disability status, must be afforded access to a rigorous curriculum in a safe and supportive environment. By closing the access and discipline gaps we believe the district will also make strides in closing the achievement gap.”

Among the recommendations, the complaint proposes some of the following steps for reform:

  • Replace tracking with a standard curriculum for students of all levels, with supplementary instruction for students who need it. Such reform in Rockville Center, New York, resulted in a dramatic narrowing of the achievement gap.
  • Reserve out-of-school suspension for only the most extreme cases of harm, focusing instead on dealing with behavior directly. School districts that have removed suspension as a routine disciplinary measure have found greater learning outcomes among the students affected.
  • Partner with experts, community members, and the complainants to reduce the adverse impact on students.

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