Statement from Dr. Donna C. Hanlin, Wicomico Superintendent of Schools: Settlement Agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice and Wicomico's Commitment to Safe, Positive School Climate
Wicomico County Public Schools has been in negotiations with the Department of Justice based on its investigation into complaints about the district’s student discipline policies, specifically concerning alleged discriminatory suspension of black and Latino students and students with disabilities. The district and the Department of Justice signed off on a settlement agreement on Jan. 19, 2017. With this settlement, the district confirms its commitment to creating positive and inclusive learning environments in all Wicomico County Public Schools.
1. Wicomico County Public Schools has been working with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to ensure a safe and positive school climate for all Wicomico students.
The Department of Justice reportedly received complaints of alleged discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity and disability in the school system’s disciplinary policies, practices, and procedures. In accordance with Department of Justice procedures, no specific information about complainants, timelines or alleged incidents was released to Wicomico Schools. Further, the Department of Justice clearly states that the settlement does not indicate an admission of liability or an admission of violation of the rights of any student. This is one of the many investigations the Department of Justice conducts throughout the country with individuals, businesses, agencies, school systems, and others.
Since becoming aware of the Department of Justice investigation in August 2015, the school system has cooperated by providing information on discipline data and on policies and procedures related to discipline. The settlement agreement outlines how the school system is upholding and will continue to uphold its responsibility to make its schools a safe and positive place to learn.
2. Wicomico Schools is committed to providing a safe and positive school climate for all students, with a focus on teaching and supporting positive behaviors while addressing and changing negative behaviors. Many of the tools or approaches outlined in the agreement are already in place, and will continue, such as:
PBIS: Each school has a point of contact for its Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) program, or a similar behavior framework. The Assistant Superintendent for Student and Family Services serves as the District PBIS Director. The school system is working to review and strengthen its PBIS measures and practices.
Code of Conduct: The school system is working with a consultant to review our Code of Conduct to ensure alignment with the Maryland Guidelines for a State Code of Discipline. Consistent and effective application of the Code of Conduct and its progressive and restorative discipline practices is key to maintaining a safe, positive school environment in which students can learn and teachers can teach.
Professional development: The school system will continue to provide professional development in areas including PBIS or similar behavior framework, restorative practices, and behaviors related to disability and proper responses to those behaviors.
Staffing: Each school will continue to have a Student Services Team that meets to address student behavior and discipline issues. Schools, with support from school system staff, will provide specialized support services such as social work, nursing, counseling, academic support, teacher support, and psychological services.
School Resource Officers: Last summer Wicomico was one of several pilot sites for joint training of school resource officers and school administrators, through the Maryland Center for School Safety and Xero Associates. The cooperative and proactive work of SROs will continue in schools, and SROs and school administrators will continue to receive professional development in the roles and responsibilities of school resource officers.
3. Timeline: What happens next?
The settlement agreement was signed on Jan. 19 and took effect immediately. The agreement will remain in effect until June 30, 2019. During that time, the school system will report discipline and behavior data to the Department of Justice every six months.
Wicomico, along with all Maryland school systems, will be working in partnership with the Maryland State Department of Education to measure and address issues of disproportionality with regard to suspensions and expulsions. Maryland’s model for addressing disproportionality, including a number of resources created by the Maryland State Department of Education, will support the school system’s efforts to advance its work in fostering a safe and positive school climate.
Aside from the terms of the agreement with the Department of Justice, Wicomico Schools has included in its vision points the aspiration to be “a public school system committed to safe schools, created through a careful balance of clearly communicated and enforced expectations and an atmosphere where students know that teachers and administrators believe in them.” As a part of that vision, the Superintendent’s December school climate survey of students, staff and parents will provide important insights into the climate picture for each school, and will help guide specialized professional development for school staff.