A two-year investigation of the Lewiston School Department by Disability Rights Maine, Pine Tree Legal Assistance and the ACLU of Maine has uncovered what the groups say are violations of federal civil rights and disabilities laws.
They point to data that show students of color and students with disabilities are far more likely to be disciplined and to receive inadequate support and necessary services than other students. But the Lewiston School superintendent says the data are old, incomplete and possibly inaccurate.
The groups’ investigation included analysis of 2013-2014 data produced by the Lewiston School Department itself. Among other things, it appears to show that students with disabilities were more than three times more likely to be suspended from school than those who do not have disabilities; and black students were nearly twice as likely to be suspended than their white classmates.
“There are clear disparities for race and for disabilities status in the way that students are disciplined,” says Zach Heiden of the ACLU of Maine.
Heiden says that’s a problem, not just for students but for the Lewiston School Department. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act prohibit government practices that have the effect of discriminating by race and-or disability. In addition, Heiden says there are no teachers of color in Lewiston’s schools.
“Over and over again when we talked to students and parents, one thing came out, which was the concern that students could go through the entire school system in Lewiston and never have a teacher of color. They could go through an entire kindergarten through 12th grade and never have a teacher who is of Somali descent. And in a community with so large a Somali population, that’s disturbing,” he says.
Lewiston School Superintendent William Webster acknowledges that there is a shortage of minority teachers in the district. There are some African American ed techs, he says, but finding and recruiting teachers of color has been difficult.
Despite that challenge, Webster says he is proud of the way the schools are working with students whose first language is not English. They’re known as English language learners, or ELL students, and Webster says their graduation rate now exceeds that of non-ELL students, something not reflected in the 2013 data.
“Our schools today are so different than just three years ago. We’ve had in excess of 100 newcomers a year for a number of years and last year it actually hit 250. And we have increased our educators, our ed techs, our programming. We’re building a new school. And it’s very discouraging for something based on three-year-old data to be making these allegations,” he says.
Atlee Reilly, managing attorney for the group Disability Rights Maine, says the groups didn’t rely solely on data. They also met with students and parents who described similar experiences.
For example, one of the complaints is that the school district lacks adequate resources for screening students with limited English for disabilities. Another is that those performing the assessments don’t speak any languages other than English.
Reilly says it doesn’t appear to be part of an intentional effort to discriminate, but combined with the disparate rates of discipline by race and disability status, he says that is the effect.
“And what we saw in some cases was you’d have students who may have been in the district five, six, seven, eight years, may have been involved in over 100 referrals to the office or suspensions or sent home, but still there had been no evaluation to determine if they had a disability and were in need of special education services,” he says.
The groups have written a letter asking the Lewiston School Department to ensure that qualified interpreters are available to speak to parents, develop strategies to eliminate race and disability disparities in school discipline and invest in disability-screening technology for Somali and other non-native students.
Lewiston Superintendent William Webster says he’ll review the request and the information with his attorneys and decide on the appropriate response.