New Orleans’ ‘School-to-Prison Pipeline’

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As Louisiana winds down commemorative activities for the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Executive Director Gina Womack and Statewide Juvenile Justice Director Ernest Johnson of Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children say they’re still monitoring—and trying to curb—the disproportionate expulsions of black children in New Orleans’ schools.

They attribute part of that ongoing trend to the fact that all 63 schools in the Louisiana Recovery District that was created post-Katrina—the seven-day storm ended on Aug. 31, 2005—either are quasi-private charter schools or slated to become charters. Charters largely set their own rules. Of the 20 schools still run by the Orleans Parish School Board, 14 are charters.

Repeatedly expelled students are among those least likely to make the grade academically or to graduate high school, studies have suggested. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics‘ most recent available data, 68 percent of persons incarcerated in state prisons had no high school diploma.

While a comparatively small but growing number of states and municipalities have been undoing seemingly unduly harsh disciplinary rules that at least partly fuel the dropout rate, Louisiana and New Orleans are not among them.

Womack and Johnson, of the incarcerated youth project, shared their perspectives on a “school-to-prison-pipeline” overrun with dropouts and those who’ve been pushed out and their organization’s Solutions Not Suspensions project with Katti Gray, a contributing editor for The Crime Report.

The Crime Report: Post-Katrina, as you see it, what facts of life for public schoolchildren in New Orleans—a district that is overwhelmingly black—are not broadly known outside of that city?

Gina Womack: What is not readily talked about … is that black kids are being treated in a way that ignores regular adolescent brain development. Our kids are seen as more aggressive. Their youthful mistakes often are judged more harshly as is shown by the state’s zero-tolerance policy, which allows very subjective decisions about when and why certain students are suspended.

Ernest Johnson: There’s a myth that school privatization and charter schools are in the best interest of black kids. And there’s a real problem with [teacher] retention in the school district. There have been [white] kids from Teach for America who went into the classroom but were not culturally competent to teach our kids in many instances. They also did not stick around for very long …

Editor’s Note: An August 2015 Tulane University study showed the number of black teachers falling from 71 percent of all New Orleans instructors to 49 percent since Katrina and a surge in inexperienced white teachers from outside of New Orleans.

When you add zero tolerance and illegitimate push-outs … it’s a really bad situation for many of our kids. They’ve had a lot of trauma … Post-Katrina, we’re in a city where violence has escalated. Murders have escalated. Many of these kids were 6, 7, 8 or 9 years old when they faced the trauma of Katrina. So there’s this ongoing trauma for our young people.

TCR: At what rate are students suspended from New Orleans public schools?

Womack: In some New Orleans schools, the rate has actually gotten worse. In some schools, the suspension rate is as high as 50 percent of all students.

TCR: For what kinds of infractions?

Womack: Some were as small as uniform violations. Some were for being habitually tardy, for cursing, talking back to the teacher, rolling your eyes, smacking yours lips. One black girl got suspended for carrying a rattail comb. Much of this is completely subjective.

Johnson: [Some] charters have ways of pushing kids out. When you say that a student cannot remain in a certain charter school and push them into another school, you often find those kids either dropping out or winding up in alternative schools and on a track that pushes them into the criminal justice system.

Womack: In some cases, the charter schools are forcing parents to withdraw their kids. If a child has a behavior issue that the schools don’t want to work with, they will want to rid themselves of that child. They tell parents ‘If you automatically withdraw your child, we will not record it as a suspension.’ Many parent[s] … don’t want their child’s permanent records to show a suspension. And that’s because some colleges are now looking at [secondary and elementary school] discipline data … When parents are dealing with all of these different issues and things are coming at them—such as ‘Your child has [attention deficit hyperactivity disorder] and the teacher doesn’t know how to deal with that’—many of them will, at the time, do what seems easiest. And they are calling some parents every day saying, ‘Your child is acting up’ … The frustration is so high that, yes, you take your child out of school.

The Crime Report: How many of New Orleans’ public schools are alternative schools for students deemed to be disciplinary problems?

Johnson: Three. They are just for high school and junior high school kids and over-age kids who should have graduated already.

Our office was in the same block as one of the alternative schools that also was on the state’s list of failing schools. There were days when there were police cars at those schools, multiple fights … a shooting … Alternative schools are the [fallback] … No traditional learning takes place in alternative schools. But you have to be in school so you are not called up for truancy.

TCR: How do those realities inform your organization’s work?

Womack: When I first started doing this work … it struck me as very interesting that often, in speaking to the families and hearing how this all started, … they would say ‘My child got suspended from school at such and such a point’ … It became obvious to me—and this is back in 2000—that we needed to do work on the front end. I wasn’t keeping statistics then, but we had so many families constantly talking about what was happening at school and something that happened that got [their child] caught in the juvenile justice system. That, to me, was very poignant and very sad … Sometimes a kid would get arrested for a fight at school. The child gets into trouble and it translates into those [overly punitive] responses.

TCR: What kind of actions, legislatively and otherwise, have you advocated to address those challenges?

Womack: We released a [Pushed Out: Harsh Discipline in Louisiana Schools Denies the Right to Education] report on how harsh policies criminalize youth in 2010. We worked on some legislation in 2011 [requiring schools] … to name the infractions that student could be suspended for—so that the decisions would not be so subjective—and requiring that [appeals] hearings be held within five days of that suspension … We won support in 2011 [from a majority of state legislators]. But the governor [Bobby Jindal] vetoed that bill.

We worked with Recovery School district in 2011 and 2012 … and had them adopt … the Dignity in Schools campaign, a model code on dignity and respect. The recovery district adopted that, but the charter schools could tweak it. It never solved the problem. This year we rallied to change the law again but ended up with nothing. Now, [for example], kindergarteners through fifth-graders cannot be suspended for uniform violations—as long as the violation was not tied to another act. So they can, subjectively, still add an infraction if they choose to.

TCR: Are you optimistic that things will change?

Womack: We are hopeful. We have to keep fighting for our kids. When I was in school, growing up in New Orleans, things were much different. I have ADHD, and I was a child who had to sit next to the teacher to keep me busy [with classwork.] That was a different time. Teachers were a lot more tolerant. You went to a community school. I was the fourth child in my family to attend that school. So, the teacher knew my parents and my siblings. Unfortunately, in this environment, children are not receiving the same respect. We’re in this quick-fix time …

I am always really saddened when we go to the detention centers and see the brilliance that [some of] these children exude. If someone has the patience to see who they are and guide and direct them, we would be better off as a city, as a state and country.

Children deserve an education. Children are not problems; children have problems that we need to get to the root of.

The conversation above was slightly abridged. Katti Gray is a contributing editor of The Crime Report and a 2014-15 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow. She welcomes your comments.

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