student rights

Court rules NY human rights law doesn't cover public schools

New York public school students have fewer options for recourse against discrimination today than they did a week ago.

The state’s highest court ruled last week that public school students cannot use New York’s human rights law to seek recognition of discrimination — or get financial compensation when discrimination has taken place.

Never before have courts ruled that such a large group of constituents is not protected by the law, said Rebecca Shore, the director of litigation for Advocates for Children, which aims to protect low-income students from discrimination.

New York’s human rights law, the first of its kind when it was passed in 1945, prohibits discrimination based on “age, race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, military status, sex or marital status” in a variety of settings, including “non-sectarian educational institutions,” according to the State Division of Human Rights. Individuals can file complaints with the state’s Division of Human Rights and seek restitution, all without paying for a lawyer.

But after two school districts contested the human rights division’s jurisdiction to investigate and fine them, the New York State Court of Appeals ruled in a 4-3 decision that the division cannot probe discrimination claims in public schools.

The human rights law explicitly says that “an education corporation or association” falls under the Division of Human Rights’ jurisdiction. But the law does not define the term, so the court turned to other New York statutes for guidance. It found other laws that defined public school districts as “public corporations” — making them therefore not “education corporations” and thus not subject to the human rights law. Students who attend private, non-parochial schools can still seek recourse under the law.

The decision reversed verdicts at midlevel courts concerning cases against the Ithaca and North Syracuse school districts. In both cases, the State Division of Human Rights had stepped in when middle school students complained about taunts from their classmates, including  racial slurs like “gorilla” and “fat black b—,” according to court documents. In one case, the human rights division found the school district in violation of the human rights law because it had not tried to prevent the harassment, and had instead argued the insults were not about race, but hygiene. The districts in turn maintained that the division did not have the right to investigate them in the first place.

The ruling does not mean that public school students who feel discriminated against have no options, said Melissa Goodman, an attorney for the New York Civil Liberties Union. New York City students can still seek redress based on a chancellor’s regulation with similar language as the human rights law. Because of that regulation, students in the city turned to the human rights law less frequently than in other parts of the state, Goodman said.

Students across the state can file complaints to the state education commissioner. And next month, the state will start to implement the Dignity for All Students Act, which aims to prevent discrimination and harassment and requires schools to collect and report data about such incidents. But none of these avenues allows students to recieve financial compensation when they suffer discrimination.

Plus, because the Dignity for All Students Act is so new, no one is exactly sure how it will work, Goodman said.

“Going through the division of human rights was clear, time tested, and worked for many parents,” she said.

The Court of Appeals ruling on is below:

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.