Fayette County Public Schools and the Equity Council are joining with a legal advocacy group to try to cut high rates of suspensions and disciplinary actions involving African-American students and students with disabilities.
The agreement with the non-profit Children's Law Center requires steps to "significantly reduce" disproportionate suspensions among such students, keep the students out of alternative education programs and return them to regular classrooms if they're in alternative classes.
The Fayette district will revise its student code of conduct as part of the agreement and implement a behavioral support system called PBIS to help students and faculty members avoid disciplinary conflicts. PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) will be instituted in five pilot schools. One pilot site will be Martin Luther King Academy for Excellence, an alternative school where unruly children are sent when other steps fail. Other sites haven't been selected.
An outside consultant will oversee the process. University of Kentucky sociologists will monitor the program, look for underlying causes of the discipline disparities and determine whether planned interventions work. The agreement is for three years.
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Hazel Forsythe, an Equity Council member and special education supporter, said she's hopeful the effort will bring major changes to benefit students.
"We think part of the problem is cultural. People get into trouble because the folks who are teaching or administering programs don't always recognize some of their differences," Forsythe said. "They don't test their assumptions, they just refer the kids to someplace else to deal with the problem. For the district, that someplace else has been the Martin Luther King Academy.
"We want to take a serious look at how this is happening, and develop strategies for making sure it doesn't continue."
Meanwhile, Children's Law Center litigation director Rebecca DiLoreto says her group is pursuing similar agreements with nine other Kentucky school districts, including Jefferson County, that have large student discipline disparities.
Parents of children with disabilities in Fayette schools have long contended their children get more than their share of disciplinary actions and too often end up in alternative programs. Data reported recently by the Equity Council show that students with disabilities are suspended at more than twice the rate of other students in the district. And while African-American students make up 28.31 percent of Fayette County's enrollment, they account for more than 60 percent of suspensions, the council found.
Fayette Superintendent Stu Silberman says the new agreement offers a chance to attack such disparities, which have defied solution for years.
"What we're trying to do is work at prevention on the front end, before the student violates the code and gets into trouble," he said. "The whole approach will be prevention."
The agreement grew out of discussions late last summer, when the Children's Law Center raised concerns with Fayette County Public Schools about high suspension rates among disabled and minority students. The two sides elected to work on the problem together without a legal confrontation.
"I think that by the superintendent making a commitment to this, it has caused more people to pay attention to the problem," DiLoreto said. "We're saying that if you're going to start somewhere to change this, suspension is key. The more you suspend a child, the less successful they're going to be. They fall behind pretty rapidly."
Mike Waford, director of the Kentucky Center for Instructional Behavior, will be the consultant for the effort. It will focus on changing behaviors among students, staff and faculty, he says.
"In some cases, we find that within the first semester there can be a significant, double-digit reduction in suspensions and expulsions," Waford said.