• Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Tony Holt

Black students' suspensions draw central Arkansas suit

A school-to-prison pipeline operated by the Little Rock School District and the Pulaski County juvenile-justice system has "disparately" affected black students to the point they are 500% more likely to be suspended or jailed than white students, according to a lawsuit filed Friday in Pulaski County Circuit Court.

"It's a moral outrage," said Chris Burks, the attorney for the plaintiffs.

"Anyone with a conscience would want to be a part of a solution to fix this."

The defendants in the lawsuit are Pulaski County, Little Rock School District Superintendent Mike Poore and Pulaski County juvenile intake officers Laura Robertson, Robert Bonnette Jr., Martha Carder and Roger Rasico Jr.

[DOCUMENT: Read complete lawsuit]

Poore said Friday afternoon that he was unaware of the lawsuit and declined to comment. Burks said county officials have acknowledged the data and are willing to make changes to eliminate the double standard.

During the 2018-19 school year, there were 254 out-of-school suspensions at Little Rock McClellan High School. The school had a graduation rate in 2018-19 of 73.02%, well below the 2018 statewide average of 89.2%, which can at least partially be attributed to the high number of students being removed from class, according to the lawsuit.

Additionally, during the first half of the last school year, there were 54 school-based arrests at Little Rock McClellan, a school that is 86.5% black. There were only five school-based arrests during the same period at Little Rock Central High, which is 52.1% black, the lawsuit stated.

The plaintiffs are Rochelle Anderson and a boy whose name was not published in the lawsuit.

Anderson was not available for comment Friday. Burks praised her for agreeing to be named in the court file. He described Anderson as a "concerned mother" who is "incredibly frustrated" that her son is being treated differently because of his race.

"African-Americans in Little Rock ... are more likely to receive out-of-school suspensions for the same offense, more likely to be arrested for school-based offenses, and once detained are more likely to stay detained longer than other races," Burks stated in his lawsuit.

The school-to-prison pipeline, as it is frequently referred to in the lawsuit, deprives black students "of their right to a general system of public schools" as well as their right to a "free and fair resolution of offense" under the Constitution, Burks said.

Dianne Curry, president of the Little Rock branch of the NAACP, said the statistics "speak for themselves" and "something needs to be done" about the ongoing disparity.

She praised the plaintiffs for stepping forward.

"We really need to put things in place where this doesn't happen, certainly not at the rate it's happening now," Curry said.

The lawsuit requests that the court orders the school district to revise its school discipline and training, and to contract with an outside provider to track and research school discipline and report back to the court to ensure the system isn't continuing to disparately impact black students. It also asks the court to create and implement an intake policy that offers alternatives to detention, and increase the budget that would go toward diversion programs such as teen court and mediation.

Burks said the school district needs to beef up programs that already exist and create new ones that are working elsewhere across the state. He pointed out the need for a teen-court program.

"Teen-court programs exist all over Arkansas," he said. "They mete out punishment, but they fix issues. It's absolutely outrageous that the second-largest school district in the state does not have one."

The district has diversionary programs, including community service. That option is far less effective than teen court and the statistics bear that out, Burks said.

The state took over the 23,000-student Little Rock School District in January 2013. The Arkansas Board of Education has announced plans to cede some control back to the local level and allow for a locally elected school board, but the state still intends to oversee the improvement at some of the lower-performing schools.

Burks made the point that pulling students out of classes and throwing them in detention facilities has a distinct effect on school performance.

"If we want to improve the ratings of these schools, we can't just keep kicking students out," he said.

The state Board of Education is not specifically named as a defendant in the lawsuit, but that is covered by naming Poore as a defendant. Poore, in his "official capacity as superintendent," is managing a district controlled by the state, Burks said.

Zachary Crow, executive director of DecARcerate, a grassroots group that opposes mass incarceration, said the state's takeover of the school district has "exacerbated" the existing problem of a school-to-prison pipeline in Little Rock. He also said Friday's lawsuit was filed at an appropriate time when the teachers union and others at the local level are seeking full autonomy.

"It comes at a time where we're paying attention and folks are fighting for local control of their school district," Crow said.

(501) 367-7890  l  contact@decarceratear.org  l  PO Box 7708, Little Rock, AR 72217  l   Newsletter

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