Tenn. School District Accused of Racial Bias | Courthouse News Service
Tuesday, November 28, 2023
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Tuesday, November 28, 2023 | Back issues
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Tenn. School District Accused of Racial Bias

KNOXVILLE (CN) - Public schools in Knox County, Tenn., discipline black and disabled students more often than their white and non-disabled peers, a complaint filed with U.S. Department of Education claims.

University of Tennessee law professor Dean Rivkin filed the discrimination complaint with the agency's Office for Civil Rights. He is a supervising attorney at the University of Tennessee's College of Law.

Rivkin claims that suspensions and school-based arrests at the Knox County Schools differ based on race and disability. He bases his analysis on Civil Rights Data Collection information.

"In this case, the CRDC data for Knox County from 2011-2012 clearly shows disproportionate numbers of African American males and IDEA students being suspended," the DOE complaint states. "African American students are almost three times as likely as white students to receive in-school suspensions; likewise, the pattern continues with non-IDEA males (1.6 times more likely than females to be suspended) and IDEA students (1.5 times more likely to be suspended than non-IDEA students)."

Black students make up 14 percent of the Knox County Schools student population, according to the complaint, but they represent a higher proportion of arrests.

"On the issue of school-based arrests, 2011-2012 CRDC data also showed that a total of 265 students were either subjected to a school-based arrest or received school-based citations for alleged offenses," the complaint states. "Overall, 37% of the students arrested or cited were African American. 31% were students with disabilities; 46% of these students were African American."

The disparity is not new. A task force found in 2007 that discipline was "not applied equitably and consistently in Knox County Schools," with black students three times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts.

Recent data shows that the issue persists. The UT College of Law wants a federal investigation and for the school system to make changes.

"Given the chronic nature and degree of the racial and disability disparities present in the suspension and arrest/citation data, we believe it is imperative that OCR conduct a full-scale investigation into the practices documented in this complaint and to direct Knox County Schools to develop and implement a verifiable compliance plan to rectify the longstanding disparities in the system," the complaint states.

Knox County Schools spokeswoman Melissa Ogden told Courthouse News that the school system will cooperate with any investigation.

"We take the issue of equity and fairness in student discipline very seriously. While the complaint was apparently filed with Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in August, the OCR has not yet communicated with the Knox County Schools that it is investigating the claim," Ogden said in an email. "When the OCR indicates that a complaint has been made and that they are going to investigate, we will respond appropriately to the complaint."

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