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Feds Require Fla. District to Fix Discipline, Enrollment Procedures

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The U.S. Department of Justice has outlined a series of steps the Palm Beach County, Fla., school district must take to resolve an investigation into how the nation's 11th largest school district's discipline system discriminated against students based on their country of origin and English-speaking abilities.

In addition, the settlement reached this week addresses complaints that the South Florida district failed to enroll children based on their or their parents' native countries or immigration status.

"All children deserve an equal opportunity to learn, no matter where they are from or what language they speak," Assistant Attorney General Tom Perez said in a written statement.

The new agreement requires the 180,000-student district to


  • Limit the use of out-of-school suspension generally and bans the use of what the Justice Department called exclusionary discipline for minor misbehavior;

  • Expand the use of positive behavioral interventions and supports, or PBIS, an approach in which all students are taught what appropriate behavior is at school, and educators use positive reinforcement to reward students, intervene with varying degrees of intensity when students don't adhere to school behavior requirements, and use a universal set of consequences. The settlement requires that these interventions and supports be accessible to students learning English;

  • Ban school administrators from involving school police when misbehavior can be handled through school disciplinary procedures;

  • Require school police to communicate with students in a language they understand, including through use of an interpreter when appropriate;

  • Monitor discipline data to identify and address disparities;

  • Provide all enrollment and registration forms in every major language spoken in the district, including Spanish, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Q'anjob'al, and Mam. Q'anjob'al and Mam are languages spoken by people who are native to some parts of Guatemala and Mexico. (The district must provide this information in additional languages that will be added in the future.);
  • And, fully implement an enrollment and registration process adopted last year that bans barriers to enrollment on the basis of race , color, religion, or other factors and requires the district to provide translation and interpretation services as necessary for families.

The settlement stems from complaints filed in 2011 with the Justice Department's civil rights division. About 11 percent of the district's students are English-language learners. Some of the work required of the district is already in progress, the settlement notes.

Barbara Briggs, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County who filed the original complaints, told The Palm Beach Post that she was pleased with the agreement.

"I'm hopeful that all children and youth who are eligible will now be enrolled in Palm Beach County Schools," Briggs told the newspaper. She noted that the Justice Department's investigation found that while black students make up less than a third of elementary school students, they represent two-thirds of the out-of-school suspensions, and added that she hopes the district's new discipline code, along with the agreement, will go "a long way to reversing that decades-old disproportionate suspension rate in the district."

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