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Little Rock School District changes take aim at claims of bias against black students

by Tony Holt | February 12, 2020 at 7:13 a.m.
FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo.

The Little Rock School District has agreed to changes that will put an end to a built-in school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately punishes black students, according to court documents.

Attorney Chris Burks filed a lawsuit in November against the school district and Superintendent Mike Poore alleging they had disciplined minority-group students more regularly and more severely than their white peers.

From the start, Poore and the school district recognized the disparity and showed a determination to fix a system in which black students were 500% more likely to be suspended or jailed compared with white students, said Burks, who represents six plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

"It's big news, and it's legally binding," he said Tuesday. "There are going to be extra workers in places where they are needed. My clients are very happy with it."

Burks emphasized that the changes aren't merely to a policy, but rather are permanent changes dictated by a judge.

Poore said the district has been aware of the discipline disparity for years and that there has been an ongoing effort to correct it.

"I'm excited that our names have been cleared from this and it honors the work of the staff at McClellan and J.A. Fair [high schools]," the superintendent said Tuesday by phone. "Do we have work left to do? Absolutely, we do."

The order was signed Tuesday morning by Pulaski County Circuit Judge Mary McGowan. The changes will go into effect at the start of the 2020-21 school year at the new Little Rock Southwest High School. New social workers still need to be hired, Poore and Burks said.

"The Little Rock School District will make peer mediation available to students at [Southwest]," the order stated. Additionally, the plaintiffs and defendants agreed that the district will hire social workers at Southwest and have staff members who are trained in the "appropriate prevention, intervention and treatment protocols" that will be better alternatives to suspension or detention, attorneys wrote.

Pulaski County and four of its juvenile intake officers were named in the lawsuit. Burks said he is optimistic the county will come forward and agree to changes that will result in the dismissal of the entire lawsuit.

To do so, the county would need to establish a treatment center, a lighter option for troubled students as opposed to a lockup, Burks said.

A county spokeswoman did not immediately respond to a message Tuesday.

Originally, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit were Rochelle Anderson, a parent, and a boy whose name was not published. After the lawsuit was filed and the media reported on it, two parents and two youths were added as plaintiffs, Burks said.

During the 2018-19 school year, there were 254 out-of-school suspensions at McClellan High School and 54 school-based arrests, according to the original lawsuit. McClellan is a school that is 86.5% black.

The graduation rate at McClellan during the same school year was 73.02%, well below the 2018 statewide average of 89.2%.

Burks argued that the high suspension and arrest rates at the school were partially due to the number of students being removed from class.

Students at McClellan and J.A. Fair high schools will make up most of the 1,800-member student body at Southwest. J.A. Fair also has a high minority-group enrollment.

Poore said the new school, which will include a magnet program, will foster a culture of "student engagement." That, too, could contribute to a reduction in discipline issues, he said.

A Section on 02/12/2020

Print Headline: LRSD sets plan in discipline suit


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