116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS - The Cedar Rapids School District is under federal investigation over whether its discipline practices discriminate against black students.
The Office of Civil Rights is conducting the investigation.
'We can confirm that OCR is currently investigating whether the Cedar Rapids Community School District discriminates against black students on the basis of race with respect to discipline practices,” according to an emailed statement from the office.
The OCR will be conducting on-site interviews, but they said no additional details could be shared.
Mary Ellen Maske, deputy superintendent, said the OCR plans to visit the district during the week of Sept. 22-25. She said Washington, Kennedy and Metro high schools, Franklin, Taft and McKinley Middle Schools and Grant and Harrison Elementary schools will be visited.
'They will be talking to students and teachers regarding our discipline policies, procedures and regulations,” Maske said.
She said visits from external agencies are not unusual, but that a federal visit is uncommon. She said it is her understanding this investigation is part of a new process and is in response to a single complaint.
'It is my understanding the Office of Civil Rights has changed the way it is doing its investigations recently,” she said. 'Our understanding is this was based on a single complaint.”
She said it is also her understanding that a similar complaint was made at the state and local level, and was reviewed and dismissed. The Iowa and Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commissions did not immediately respond to phone or email inquiries.
The Iowa Department of Education spokeswoman Staci Hupp said the department has not cited Cedar Rapids for anything related to racial discrimination in disciplinary practices, and had no comment on this investigation.
Maske said the school district takes equity seriously, and has a number of programs aimed at improving equity and culture.
'What I can tell you is we have district policies, procedures and regulations to maintain a safe and orderly environment, and that is one of our top priorities,” Maske said.
Maske said after the on-site visits, there likely will be follow up, and she is not sure when the process will conclude. She said the outcome likely will include steps to make improvements.
'We see this as an opportunity,” Maske said. 'We know we do a good job with this already, but we are always looking to improve in this area.”
A couple of measures of discipline, suspensions and referrals, show that black students are disciplined disproportionately to white students, according to district data.
Black students account for 18.6 percent of district wide enrollment, but 46.5 percent of all suspensions are handed down to black students. At the high school level, black students make up 41 percent of referrals while they only make up 18.7 percent of the enrollment.
Paul R. Hayes, the district's executive manager of learning supports said that trend is a one many are trying to address.
'The answer to that question is what districts across the state and the nation have wrestled with for years,” he said. 'There really is no definitive explanation, but for the past several years CRCSD has focused on the following things in an attempt to positively impact the data.”
He cited cultural competency training, an equity review that was deemed in compliance, safe schools modules for new teachers, Chicago school visits to model best practices for successful schools, a contract with Ed Equity, a California-based consulting firm and participation in Georgetown Racial Disparity Certification Program, among others.
A project called 'The State of Equity in Cedar Rapids - 2014,” lead by the Cedar Rapids Civil Rights Commission explored issues related to disparity in several sectors, including education. The goal was bringing to light issues in hopes of leading to policy changes that close the disparity gaps.
'There are many reasons why disproportionality may occur without it being discrimination,” a report from the project stated. 'Disproportionality may be a helpful red flag in measuring the adverse effect of a practice or standard that is neutral and non-discriminatory in its intent, but, nonetheless, disproportionately affects members of a protected class.”
Chad Simmons, executive director of Diversity Focus, a Cedar Rapids based organization that advocates for inclusiveness, said he is not familiar with the complaint but that 'discrimination” implies criminal wrongdoing and should be taken seriously.
'Anytime someone raises issues around discrimination it should be taken seriously,” Simmons said. 'But, again, when you take a look around the core work that is being done around equity, the Cedar Rapids School District really is one of the leaders in the state.”
School board President Mary Meisterling did not return a message seeking comment.
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