Recently, the ACLU of Maine, Disability Rights Maine and KIDS Legal at Pine Tree sent a letter to Lewiston School Superintendent Bill Webster, identifying ways the District is currently falling short of its obligations to educate children of color and children with disabilities.

We did not arrive at these concerns out of thin air. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Equal Educational Opportunities Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act all include strict requirements protecting racial and ethnic minorities, as well as students with disabilities.

For more than two years, we have been investigating issues related to race and disability in Lewiston. That investigation has included interviews with parents, students and community members. Throughout our conversations, we have heard the same concerns over and over again, which we outlined in our letter.

Time and again, families told us that there are no teachers of color in the Lewiston schools — some students reported going to school from kindergarten through high school without ever seeing a teacher or staff person who was the same race as them. This means that students of color, particularly students of African descent, are denied the opportunity to learn from teachers who personally understand what they and their families went through to get to America. And, it means that white students are denied an opportunity to learn from teachers with different life experiences.

We learned that black students with disabilities do not have access to the same resources as their white counterparts, because the school lacks the resources to adequately screen English Language Learners for disabilities.

We learned that English Language Learners feel stuck in non-credit and non-core classes, with no clear path out; a number of the students we spoke to clearly knew English yet still did not have access to the classes they needed to graduate.

And we learned that parents who don’t speak English find it difficult to communicate with school staff about their children’s education or discipline problems.

Our investigation relied on data provided directly by the Lewiston School Department (all school districts in the United States are required to report certain data, broken out by race, to the federal Department of Education).

That data revealed additional problems, especially when it comes to discipline policies. Based on our analysis, Lewiston’s discipline policies have a disparate impact on students of color and students with disabilities. Perhaps most alarmingly, we learned that the District relies far too heavily on out-of-school suspensions when it comes to minority students. For instance, nearly one out of five students with a disability received an out-of-school suspension in 2014 — a rate three times that of students without disabilities.

This approach to school discipline is not supported by education best practices. To the contrary, research indicates that relying on out-of-school suspensions undermines, rather than enhances, the goal of providing a safe and productive learning environment.

Taken together, we believe these problems create what amounts to a hostile learning environment for minority students in the District, and especially for students who fall into more than one minority category (such as race and disability).

Today, 24 percent of students in the Lewiston schools come from homes where English is not the primary language. Yet many of these students are not getting the support they need to be successful in school. The bottom line is, Lewiston needs to take corrective action or else continue to leave nearly a quarter of its students behind.

And we believe that Lewiston wants to make these improvements. In fact, we see evidence that the district has addressed some of these problems on a case-by-case basis. Now it is time to address them systematically, so that the increasingly diverse student body in Lewiston will have a fair chance at an education. This won’t be easy, but it was our confidence in Lewiston’s willingness and ability to address these problems that led us to send them a letter rather than filing a lawsuit.

Two years ago, Lewiston received nationwide attention for its state championship boys’ soccer team in stories that celebrated the diversity that team brought to the field. Today, the district has the opportunity to expand that spirit of inclusion to the classroom.

Zachary Heiden is legal director at ACLU of Maine. Courtney Beer is directing attorney of KIDS Legal at Pine Tree Legal Assistance. Atlee Reilly is managing attorney at Disability Rights Maine.

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