By Katie Reilly
Updated: August 24, 2016 5:20 PM ET

Black students and students with disabilities are disciplined more harshly than their classmates in Richmond, Va.’s public schools, according to a complaint filed Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.

The anti-discrimination complaint, filed against Richmond Public Schools, was brought by two black students with disabilities and the Richmond branch of the NAACP.

During the 2014-15 school year, African-American students received 93% of short-term suspensions, 98% of long-term suspensions and 97% of expulsions, according to the complaint. African-American students make up about 76% of the total student population in Richmond Public Schools.

Black students with disabilities were also nearly 13 times more likely than white students without disabilities to receive a short-term suspension, the complaint said, citing data from the Virginia Department of Education. The data includes mental, emotional and physical disabilities.

“These disparities cannot be explained by differences in student behavior,” Rachael Deane, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said in a statement. “Rather, there is overwhelming evidence that the school division’s discipline policies are excessively punitive and lack clear standards for application, leading to subjective interpretation and selective enforcement.”

A spokeswoman for Richmond Public Schools, which serves 24,000 students, said the district will fully cooperate with the Office of Civil Rights investigation.

“It is important to note that Richmond Public Schools is working diligently to ensure that all disciplinary actions are fair and consistent,” she said in a statement, adding that the school system has made efforts to clearly define what constitutes appropriate disciplinary action and to move away from zero-tolerance policies. “Our goal is to find disciplinary measures that balance safety and instruction, so we welcome any dialogue that promotes both equity and quality in the education of our students.”

The JustChildren Program of the Legal Aid Justice Center—which filed the Richmond complaint—published a report in May, showing that black students were 3.6 times more likely than white students to be suspended in Virginia during the 2014-15 school year.

Concerns about disproportionate disciplinary practices in schools extend across state lines. A report published last year by the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania examined disciplinary action in 13 states, finding that black students, on average, made up 24% of school district populations but were suspended and expelled at much higher rates. For example, in 132 Southern school districts, black students were suspended at rates five times higher than their percentage of the student population.

The Richmond complaint called for alternative disciplinary approaches with clearer standards for application.

“The school division must conduct an unflinching examination of these disparities and adopt strategies to improve school climate and ensure that discipline policies are fair for all students,” Lynetta Thompson, president of the Richmond NAACP, said in a statement.

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