Hallway Patrol

Students, advocates rail against suspension trends at hearing

Nilesh Wishwasrao, a former student at Flushing High School, said he’s been suspended from school so many times that he finally lost count.

“Their first reaction was always a suspension,” Wishwasrao recalled Wednesday at a City Council hearing about the Department of Education’s suspension data released last month.

Wishwasrao said he was suspended “constantly” for what he said were small infractions, such as chewing gum and wearing a hat in school. Sometimes he was more disruptive, “talking back to a teacher, yelling at a dean.”

Finally, Wishwasrao testified, a guidance counselor met with his father to explain that high school probably wasn’t right for him and “it would be better if I get a GED rather than a high school diploma.”

Wishwasrao never graduated and is now pursuing his GED.

Wishwasrao was part of a chorus of criticism from students and advocates who testified at the hearing, held by the City Council’s education committee. Their testimonies came directly after DOE officials shed more light on suspensions in the city schools and promised changes to how some suspensions are handled.

At least 45,939 students — or 4.5 percent of the city’s student population — were suspended during the 2010-2011 school year, Deputy Chancellor Kathleen Grimm said in her testimony. The majority of them — 70 percent — were suspended just once, she said, but more than one in 10 — about 6,000 students — were suspended three or more times.

Grimm defended the data against criticism that principals and superintendents were unnecessarily punishing students. She cited trends that showed long-term suspensions for more severe behavior and suspensions were declining and said that preliminary data for the 2011-2012 school year indicated a 13 percent decrease in all suspensions.

“Our schools are safer, suspension rates are declining, and students and staff are embracing more positive and progressive approaches towards high-quality learning environments,” Grimm said in her testimony.

But she acknowledged concerns about suspensions for certain groups, particularly young students. At least 814 suspensions were issued to students in third grade or below. Grimm said the department would monitor elementary schools with higher-than-average suspension rates.

“We have identified our younger children in particular as those who we want to pay attention to,” Grimm said.

In addition, Grimm and Elayna Konstan, who oversees long-term suspension centers known as alternative learning centers, announced that the DOE will try to ease the transition back into schools from ALCs by using transition coaches. The program is part of the city’s Young Men’s Initiative to aid black and Latino youth. The DOE sent about 15,000 students to ALCs last year, but just over half ended up attending, meaning that thousands of students spent their suspensions outside of a school environment.

Council members zeroed in on racial disparities in the suspension numbers. Black students, who make up about one third of the student population, represented half of all suspensions. At one point during the hearing, Councilman Charles Barron ordered every DOE official in the room to stand, then chastised Grimm because she and her colleagues were not black.

“Not a single black man is here to give you his perspective,” Barron said. “All white. Why wouldn’t you bring a black man here to give us insight?

Later in the hearing, Councilman Robert Jackson pressed the issue of race with advocates, including representatives of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which pushed for the data’s release.

“Why do you think black students are being suspended at such a high rate?” he asked. “Is it because they’re black? Is it because of racial discrimination? Is it because they’re more troubled? Is it because they’re more intimidating to teachers because they’re bigger?”

Udi Ofer, the NYCLU’s advocacy director, said there many factors could help explain black students’ higher suspension rates but noted that national research has found that black students are suspended more often than white students for the same infractions.

Council members did not address the fact that the suspension data the DOE released is incomplete. Citing federal privacy laws, the department did not release data about suspensions at hundreds of schools where there were fewer than 10 suspensions.

Another student who testified, Chanwatie Ramnauth, a senior at Hillcrest High School, said she did not believe that the school’s administration was accurately recording suspensions. According to official data, Hillcrest had fewer than 10 suspensions last year, so the DOE did not release details about the infractions. But Ramnauth said she saw suspensions issued daily at her school. She said she saw a dean on Monday confront one student who wanted to know why she was being suspended.

“He told her ‘It’s like a give-and-take marriage,'” Ramnauth recalled in her testimony. “You give me the authority to suspend you and I allow you to go to class.”

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.