July 13, 2024

Discipline used in Kansas’ largest school district was discriminatory, the Justice Department says

FILE - The U.S. Justice Department sign is seen, Nov. 18, 2022, in Washington. Educators in Kansas’ largest public school district discriminated against Black and disabled students when they used certain kinds of discipline, according to the U.S. Justice Department, which announced an agreement Tuesday, July 2, 2024, in which the district has agreed to revise its policies. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

By JOHN HANNA Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Educators in Kansas’ largest public school district discriminated against Black and disabled students when disciplining them, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, which announced an agreement Tuesday that will have the district revising its policies.

Changes the Wichita district has agreed to include restraining unruly students less often and ending the practice of putting misbehaving students alone in rooms by Jan. 1, 2025, the DOJ said.

The district also agreed to offer counseling or tutoring to every student who was confined alone in a room during the past three schools years, with the number of hours matching those for which the student was secluded. The department said the district already is writing a new code of conduct for students and has scheduled crisis-prevention training for staff.

The agreement comes amid an ongoing national debate about classroom discipline and whether punishments for minority and disabled students are disproportionately harsh. The Justice Department has previously reached similar agreements with other school districts in the U.S.

The settlement “sends a powerful message to Kansas schools and schools across the nation to ensure that they must no longer alienate or target Black students or students with disabilities,” said Rocky Nichols, executive director of the Disability Rights Center of Kansas.

The Department of Justice said in a letter to the Wichita district’s attorney that it investigated disciplinary practices for the past three school years and visited the district in March 2023. It concluded that the district disciplined Black students more often and more severely than white students.

The DOJ also said that in the more than 3,000 times over three years that the district restrained or secluded students, 98% of those students were disabled. And it noted that hundreds of the cases involved students in kindergarten, first or second grade. More than 40 students were restrained or secluded more than 20 times each, the DOJ said.

“We substantiated allegations that the District discriminated against Black students in its administration of school discipline and referral of student conduct to law enforcement,” the department said in its letter. “We also found evidence that the District denied students with disabilities equal opportunity to participate in or benefit from its education program.”

The Wichita district has more than 46,000 students, nearly 10% of all students in Kansas. About 64% of the students are Black, Hispanic or have multiple ethnicities, according to State Department of Education figures, and the state considers nearly 78% to be at risk of failing academically.

The DOJ said the district cooperated throughout its investigation and had “expressed a desire to make positive improvements.”

“We can and must create a more equitable school district by changing some of our practices and procedures,” Superintendent Kelly Bielefeld said in an online statement after the Wichita school board approved the agreement. “Safe learning communities — for students and staff — will always be of the utmost importance.”

Disability rights advocates in numerous states for years have criticized restraints and seclusion for disabled students, saying the punishments are overused and dangerous.

In 2022, Iowa’s second-largest school district promised to end the use of seclusion rooms after the Department of Justice concluded that it had violated the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. In 2023, Alaska’s largest district agreed to stop secluding students and to use restraints only when there is a real risk of physical harm to the student or others.

Kansas law already dictates that restraint can be used only when there is an imminent risk that students will seriously harm themselves or others, according to Nichols.

“Wichita public schools should have been following that requirement all along,” he said.

In other states, pressure to do more about unruly students has led officials to go in a different direction.

Arkansas last year expanded its restraint law so that — in addition to teachers — other school staff can restrain students in some cases. Some states still allow corporal punishment: A southwestern Missouri district reinstituted student spanking in 2022 as a form of discipline, but only in cases where the parents agree.

In Wichita, the Department of Justice said, the difference in discipline for Black and white girls was “particularly pronounced.” At one middle school, Black girls faced being punished for insubordination 4.5 times as often as white girls and were cited for dress code violations 3.6 times as often, the DOJ letter said. Wichita schools restrained students 1,570 times over three years and put them in seclusion 1,450 times, the letter added.

“We concluded that most of the District’s restraints and all its seclusions were improper under both District policy and generally accepted practice,” the letter said.