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Wicomico schools settle with feds after complaints of discrimination

Despite settlement with feds, schools superintendent says she has not seen evidence of discrimination.

The Wicomico County school board has agreed to train staff and revise the code of conduct under an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department aimed at redressing discipline practices that were alleged to discriminate against minority and disabled children.

The board and the Justice Department agreed on the corrective measures Jan. 19 to settle allegations of discrimination against the Eastern Shore district. Schools officials did not admit fault.

"Since I have been here, and in any review that I've done, I have not seen evidence of any discrimination," said Superintendent Donna Hanlin, who was appointed last March to a four-year term.

"The Department of Justice investigation is based upon 'alleged' discrimination," she said. "I would never condone discriminatory practices."

Disability Rights Maryland, previously known as the Maryland Disability Law Center, brought a complaint against the district in 2012.

"We were concerned about the arrests of students," said Alyssa Fieo, the organization's director of legal advocacy. "Students were being charged due to behavior that was related to a disability."

Complaints have been made by African-American parents who said their children were disproportionately suspended and sent to alternative schools.

"Sometimes, law enforcement has to be involved," said Mary Ashanti, president of the Wicomico chapter of the NAACP. "Years ago, when I was in school, it would have been handled by the teacher or the principal."

Ashanti said she began advising parents about three years ago to send complaints to the Department of Justice. A department spokeswoman did not respond to questions.

Wicomico officials were scheduled to discuss the settlement with principals at the district's 24 schools Wednesday. Hanlin said the district learned of the federal investigation in August 2015.

The district said in the settlement that it entered into the agreement to avoid litigation and preserve federal funding. The deal binds the district to changes until June 2019.

The district said in the settlement it has hired a consultant to redress discriminatory discipline practices against African-Americans, Latinos and disabled students.

Under the agreement, each school must hire or designate staff within 90 days to work with administrators and ensure all students receive support.

The district must also submit a revised code of conduct to the Justice Department by May for review and approval. The department must finish its review within 60 days.

Hanlin said the system, which has nearly 15,000 students, has hired an outside consultant to review the code.

"We're confident the review is going to show our code of conduct is appropriate," she said. "There really isn't anything in this agreement that we have not already been doing."

The revised code of conduct limits the involvement of school police to incidents that present an imminent risk of injury and cannot be safely handled by teachers.

It also sets thresholds for behavior that can lead to suspensions or expulsions. It prohibits teachers from locking out students who are late to class.

Any student found to be dressed inappropriately must be allowed to call a parent for a change of clothes, or offered clothes by the school, rather than be sent home. Students are allowed to appeal suspensions.

"When a child is not in school, she cannot learn," Ashanti said. "There needs to be some alternative when a child is acting out."

The school district is required to report to the Justice Department twice each year on how it's meeting the conditions.

School officials said the settlement is expected to cost the district $14,000.

"We are hopeful that with this settlement agreement students' rights will be protected, and there will be fairer treatment," Fieo said.

tprudente@baltsun.com

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