A leader in the advocacy organization Children's Law Center says the Fayette County school district hasn't worked quickly enough to improve an alternative program for students with behavior issues.
The district's Fayette Equity Council has been working with the local Children's Law Center since at least 2010 to avoid legal action against Fayette County Public Schools over what the center sees as disparities in discipline.
While some improvements have been made, there hasn't been sufficient progress in changing the punitive culture at Martin Luther King Jr. Academy for Excellence, said Rebecca DiLoreto, the center's litigation director.
Fayette Superintendent Tom Shelton said school officials have a task force working on the issue.
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Martin Luther King Jr. Academy is the only punitive, involuntary program for students in the district, DiLoreto said.
"One way or another the district needs to embrace a new approach to meet the needs of students with behavioral disabilities and who struggle with mental health challenges," she said.
DiLoreto said the district had reduced suspensions districtwide, and there were efforts to improve academics at Martin Luther King Jr. Academy.
But she wants the school to back away from a model of involuntary placement where there's a perception of kids having to "serve time."
Rather than have a punitive focus, the district should "instead try to ask ourselves how we can better meet the diverse educational needs of kids."
In one effort, the district has partnered with the Children's Law Center and Kentucky Center for Instructional Discipline to implement a Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program.
In September, there were 102 students in sixth to 12th grades at the school on Liberty Road, according to the district's website. Sixty-eight percent were black. DiLoreto thinks the percentage of black students could have been higher by the end of the school year. Eighty-seven percent of the students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.
Hazel Forsythe, a member of the Fayette Equity Council, told members of the Fayette County school board several months ago that students who go to MLK late in high school aren't always given the chance to return to their assigned schools.
Shelton agreed that more should be done.
"While Martin Luther King Academy may meet the needs of some of our students, we need to develop other programs and alternative settings so that we can meet the needs of every student," he said.
"That work is still ongoing, and we hope to be able to bring a recommendation to the school board this academic school year."
Chief Academic Officer Lu Young said the district needed "more options for disenfranchised kids whose needs are not being met in the regular school environment during the regular school day."
Martin Luther King Jr. Academy, which opened during the 1999-2000 school year, serves students who are not thriving in other educational settings.
MLK offers a daytime program for students who had behavior issues at other schools, a computer-based credit recovery program for middle school students who are more than two years behind, and night school for students who work but want to pursue their high school diplomas.
In addition, MLK provides certain courses online, and the academy has satellite locations at community centers and churches.
A district Alternative Placement Taskforce has been working to make improvements this year, said Shelton.
The district needed to revisit how students were assigned to alternative programs, what plans were put in place to ensure their success while there, and what procedures were available to transition them back into a regular setting, he said.
Shelton said three work groups were established in the spring. One focused on establishing an equitable referral process to alternative programs; one looked at alternative placement and expulsion options; and one examined the creation of transition plans.
Each group included students, district and school staff, families, higher education representatives and community partners.
Shelton said beginning with this school year, the district will develop a state-mandated plan — called an Individual Learning Plan Addendum — for every student in an alternative placement setting. It will be an action plan addressing the educational and behavioral needs of each student, and will outline a process for entering and leaving an alternative education program, he said.
"The remaining work, which will most specifically address the issues raised by our partners at the Children's Law Center, is to look at the options we currently have for student placement and expanding our alternative placement settings," Shelton said.