Student Rights Alliance
Student Doe had already missed 25 days of school, serving a 45-day suspension, when Courey Mascagni, part of the new Student Rights Alliance (SRA), entered the case. Mascagni, a special education attorney, arranged a hearing. The hearing immediately determined that DC Public Schools (DCPS) had issued too severe a suspension and ruled the student eligible to return to school. The judge's final report declared Doe entirely innocent of charges. Time to drop the case and move on, right?
Not so fast, says Mascagni. What about the 26 days of school the high-schooler had already missed? How could Doe ever catch up? And what about the larger issues involved? The attorney launched a due process complaint against DCPS, arguing that Doe had been denied a “free and appropriate public education.” Awards in the case provided for attorney fees and “compensatory education” in the form of vouchers to supply tutoring and other support compensating for the student's missed school days.
DCPS regularly issues harsher than necessary punishments, according to a recent study, and due process is often ignored. This general pattern must be changed, insists SRA. Facing cases like Doe's is one way to educate DCPS about the law, Mascagni argues, and enough such cases will prompt a reevaluation of the system. “That's when the dialogue can begin.” As of press time DCPS had no comment.
“Push Out” and Inequality
Earlier this year the Every Student Every Day Coalition prepared “District Discipline,” a report that led to establishment of SRA. The report notes a correlation between pushing students out of school and “decreased academic performance, dropping out, substance abuse, and criminal activity.” It also highlights inequalities in this downward spiral, often called the “school to prison pipeline.”
DCPS suspended 11,000 of its 46,000 students in 2011-12. But students in some areas of town were far more likely to be suspended. A middle school in Ward 3 suspended 7 percent of students, for example, while middle-schools in other parts of town suspended between 25 and 72 percent of students.
In Wards 7 and 8, where over 40 percent of children live in poverty, DCPS suspended 35 percent of students during 2011-12. In Wards 2 and 3, where child poverty rates were 8.5 and 1.9 percent, respectively, DCPS suspended students at rates of 7 and 9 percent. Throughout the country, the coalition's research shows, administrators disproportionately exclude students with disabilities, students who are homeless or in foster care, students of color, and students in poverty.
In DCPS special education students are three times more likely to be suspended than their general-education peers. In addition “the extra set of procedural safeguards” for such students are often overlooked, says Geno Donney, deputy director of Took-Crowell Institute for At-Risk Youth at the University of the District of Columbia’s law school.
Alternative Discipline Strategies
Mascagni met Student Koe 35 days after a “suspension warning” was issued. Koe had been in a fight with another student and led from school in handcuffs. The fight demanded disciplinary action, Mascagni reports. However, an alternative to suspension – assignment to an anger management program, for example – would have improved outcomes for all. Instead, the attorney explains, the student, out of school and without a support system for weeks, “picked up charges while in a shelter situation.” Mascagni is still fighting for compensatory education for Koe.
Koe's suspension was never formalized. Instead the student was told to enroll elsewhere. De facto expulsions like this are common, according to SRA, and more frequent for students with special education needs.
SRA advocates use legal education and, where necessary, litigation to protect students like Doe and Koe. But they also hope their work will prepare the way for a dialogue with DCPS and eventually other LEAs in DC and beyond about the educational disasters of suspension and about alternatives to “push out.”
Donney, Mascagni, and others are working with the American Civil Liberties Union of the National Capital Area (ACLU-NCA) on a multi-pronged approach to DCPS’s discipline issues. Lawyers and law students assist students and families on specific cases. In addition an interactive and detailed “Help Yourself” action kit is available on SRA's website.
SRA hopes to train community members, including high school students, especially in schools flagged with high suspension rates. Once familiar with “Help Yourself” strategies, they can help students protect their own rights, calling in legal assistance as necessary. “Right now, nothing much happens,” says Mascagni, in the face of harsh, sometimes illegally imposed suspensions. “If every student is printing out a form from our website and asking for an appeal, administrators may think twice about suspensions.”
(Student names and schools were changed or withheld for juvenile privacy reasons.)
Virginia Spatz is the feature reporter for We Act Radio's Education Town Hall, WeActEd.wordpress.com. The Oct. 24 edition included an interview with SRA's Geno Donney.