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Civil rights organizations allege racial discrimination in Rockford Public Schools
Federal filing reveals troubling inequity in school disciplinary practices, calls for critically needed reforms

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ROCKFORD, Illinois — The National Center for Youth Law and the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center filed a federal complaint today against Rockford Public Schools (RPS), challenging its racially discriminatory practice of referring students to law enforcement for minor school disciplinary matters.

The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, alleges widespread violations of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits recipients of federal financial assistance from engaging in discriminatory conduct. RPS has routinely targeted Black students, as well as other students of color, by referring them to school resource officers (SROs), issuing them municipal tickets, and engaging in other practices that violate their federal rights, leave these students feeling criminalized and unsafe, and impede their academic success. 

The complaint calls on the Office for Civil Rights to require RPS to take steps to ensure that its disciplinary practices, including its use of SROs, do not discriminate against students of color in the district.

"Black students in Rockford Public Schools have been made to feel unwelcome and their experiences have been starkly different from those of their White peers," said Nina Monfredo, an attorney with the National Center for Youth Law. "These students are entitled to a quality education, and they shouldn’t be fast-tracked into — nor indebted to — a municipal ticketing system."

RPS is consistently among the top-five districts in Illinois for suspensions and expulsions and has a long history of using exclusionary discipline practices — those that remove students from classrooms — to address common student behaviors. These practices have been particularly harmful to Black students, who during the 2023-24 school year represent 31% of the student population but account for an alarming 55% of referrals to SROs. In fact, Black students receive SRO referrals at more than three times the rate of White students, and Black students with disabilities receive SRO referrals at more than three times the rate of other students.

Black students are also much more likely than their White peers to be issued municipal tickets for "subjective" school disciplinary violations, like fighting or trespassing. Over the past six years, Black students were the recipients of 75% of such tickets issued by the district, while just one White student was ticketed. Tickets can carry fines and fees totaling more than $750.

Some of the student experiences include:

  • A Black high school freshman was singled out and searched by an SRO who told her he was investigating a report of smoking in a restroom. Although she was among several students in the restroom, the SRO erroneously claimed she was the only occupant. The student was berated by the SRO for pointing out his false statement, was suspended, and missed several days of school, causing her to fall behind on her academics. Her experiences with administrators and SROs on campus have ultimately left her feeling unsafe and "on edge."
  • A Black student was bullied and assaulted while staff failed to intervene. When another student attacked this student, the attacked student was expelled for more than a year for fighting.  An administrator had initially recommended a four-day suspension, but was removed from the case, and the student ultimately received the much harsher disciplinary action of expulsion, despite overwhelming evidence that he was not at fault, including video of the student trying to avoid the altercation. 

Students suffer when they are unnecessarily removed from school. A first court appearance, according to one study, nearly quadruples the likelihood that a student will not graduate high school. The complaint filed with the OCR encourages a shift away from reliance on SROs for routine disciplinary matters and toward restorative practices that are culturally relevant, emphasize healing and accountability, and strive to repair relationships and promote safer communities.

“The kind of punitive discipline being used in RPS destroys students' chances at long-term success,” said Zoe Li, a law fellow with the MacArthur Justice Center. “Students deserve effective, nurturing, evidence-based solutions that prioritize their well-being and model the importance of respect. To that end, we are committed to seeing that Rockford Public Schools respects the rights of all its students.”