The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal civil rights complaint against the Dothan City Schools system on Tuesday, alleging that the system disproportionately uses expulsion and suspension to discipline African Americans and students with disabilities for minor offenses.

The system recently revised its disciplinary policies, but representatives of the SPLC say the reforms didn’t go far enough to end practices they described as violations of students’ civil rights.

“We tried to work with the district and we’re happy that they made some reforms, but the depth and systemic nature of the issues is so extreme that it was not enough for the district to make a few changes,” Natalie Lyons, an attorney for the SPLC said. “…This situation needs a higher level review.”

The Department of Education will review the SPLC’s complaint to determine if it has merit. The department can require the school system to make reforms and can also reduce federal funding to the school system.

Dothan City Schools Superintendent Chuck Ledbetter said he disagrees with the SPLC’s assessment of the situation and its complaint.

“We’re happy to work with the Department of Education to show what we are doing,” he said. “We are going to continue to do the best we can to take care of every student.”

According to the complaint, the Dothan City Schools violates the civil rights of African American students and students with disabilities by subjecting them to exclusionary discipline – kicking them out of the classroom or out of school – far more frequently than white students. Lyons said this practice sets students up for further academic and disciplinary trouble.

The complaint said African-American students represent approximately 55 percent of the district’s students but 100 percent of expulsions (four students were expelled) in 2015-16 and 85 percent or more of the students removed from class through practices such as suspension, in-school suspension and referral to alternative school. The complaint also says disciplinary actions against students with disabilities have more than doubled since the 2013-14 school year.

The Dothan City School Board recently approved a new code of conduct that specified what disciplinary actions school administrators can apply to offenses, but Lyons said this action did not sufficiently address SPLC concerns.

The complaint also said the system frequently uses harsh punishments to handle minor offenses and that black students were frequently subjected to these measures. The complaint described an example of this practice: A 16- year-old African-American student at Northview High School was sent to the district’s alternative school, P.A.S.S. Academy, for 30 days for receiving a stolen cell phone – even though a school administrator searched his bag and failed to find the phone. When it was later discovered that a white student had stolen the phone, the white student received only 10 days at the alternative school.

The complaint also criticizes the use of exclusionary discipline against elementary-aged students, particularly students of color. The complaint alleges that in 2015, more than 83 percent of disciplinary actions were taken against elementary students. More than half of all actions were taken against students at three predominately African American schools.

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