Lewiston –The Lewiston School Department has failed to adequately serve students of color and students with disabilities, according to the ACLU of Maine, Disability Rights Maine and Kids Legal at Pine Tree Legal Assistance. In a letter to the superintendent of the Department, the groups shared the results of a two-year-long investigation into race and disability accommodations in the Lewiston schools. According to the letter, the Department is in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The letter outlines several concerns and violations of federal law, including:
- Discipline disparities for students of color and students with disabilities compared to their white and non-disabled counterparts;
- Failure to identify students of color as having disabilities, resulting in a failure to provide necessary services and supports to enable them to access the general education curriculum and protect them from discrimination;
- English Language Learners (ELL) are retained in non-credit and elective ELL classes without an opportunity to enroll in the required classes necessary for graduation;
- Lack of accommodations for non-English speaking parents to communicate with anyone in the Department (according to the letter, very few staff know how to use the interpreter phone service); and
- An absolute lack of black teachers.
According to data provided by the Department to the federal Department of Education, black students were nearly three times as likely to receive an in-school suspension as their white classmates, and nearly twice as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension. Students with disabilities were more than three times as likely to receive an out-of-school suspension as students who do not have disabilities. Black students with disabilities were suspended at the highest rate, over 26 percent, compared to the lowest rate of three percent for white students without disabilities.
“Denying a student access to an education harms the child and the entire school community,” said Courtney Beer, Kids Legal at Pine Tree Legal Assistance. “Lewiston’s approach to school discipline is contrary to research and education best practices.”
Approximately one-quarter of Lewiston’s students are identified as ELL. Yet multiple sources reported that the District lacks adequate instruments to use for screening students with limited English proficiency for disabilities. Further, none of the people responsible for disability screening in the district speak any language other than English.
“Disabilities are blind to race, religion and ethnic origin. Yet the Department continues to identify ELL students with disabilities at a much lower rate than the rest of the school population,” said Atlee Reilly. “Adequate procedures to identify and evaluate students with disabilities are a necessary first step in ensuring that students with disabilities are protected from discrimination and provided with the services and supports they need to access the general education curriculum.”
Further, the groups report hearing from several students that they have never had – or even seen – a black teacher. It is unclear if there are any black teachers currently employed by the Department. The Department’s failure to hire staff that reflect the diversity in the community was also a concern repeatedly expressed by parents and community members.
“Having teachers from different racial and ethnic backgrounds would benefit everyone. Black students would have teachers and role models who look like them, and white students would be better prepared to enter our diverse society,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director of the ACLU of Maine. “Lewiston would better serve all of the students there by recruiting a more diverse staff.”
The letter recommends immediate steps the Department should take in order to begin rectifying the current situation, including aggressively recruiting teachers and staff of color, ensuring the availability of interpreters and training staff to use the interpreter phone service; improving procedures for identifying and evaluating students with disabilities to ensure practices do not discriminate against ELL students; upgrading the ELL program so students have a clear path into core for-credit classes; and developing a concrete set of strategies, objectives and timelines to eliminate race and disability disparities in school discipline.
The letter can be found here: https://www.aclumaine.org/sites/default/files/letter_lewiston_school_department.pdf