When Rochelle Thomas’ African-American son didn’t have a belt on at his charter school one day, the assistant headmaster told him he was not prepared for class.
“Instead of a uniform infraction, which is what everybody else gets, he gets a couple days detention,” Thomas said.
When Eliza Diaz’s son was in third grade at a charter school, he was constantly being written up for minor infractions. When Diaz spoke to school leaders about it, she felt her concerns were brushed off.
“Their attitude was ‘it is what it is’ and you just deal with it or you withdraw him,” Diaz said. “It makes me worry that so many kids with disabilities are expelled from school.”
Harsh school disciplinary policies like the ones these parents described are pushing some of the most vulnerable students out of Maricopa County classrooms.
“These stories are just a fraction of the stories from so many different parents,” said Dr. Yara Vargas, a physician and mother of two Black children, at the launch of the Demand2Learn initiative on Aug. 9 at the Phoenix Center for the Arts. “These stories are heartbreaking because at the end, what all these parents want and these families want is for their children to be educated, to be successful, to learn.”
Infographic by Lisa Irish/AZEdNews
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The Demand2Learn initiative, launched by the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, is partnering with Maricopa County school leaders to reduce suspensions, with families to provide advocacy training on students’ rights and with community groups to advocate for reforms at the state level to help children stay in school.
“I think the important thing for me is how many different types of folks are coming together to make things better for our kids,” said Alex Navidad, a criminal defense attorney at the launch event. “I think in a time when there’s so much division, to see unity is a really wonderful thing.”
Demand2Learn provides advocacy training for parents each month, and the next session on Thursday, Sept. 7th from 6 to 9 p.m. at CO+HOOTS at 221 E. Indianola Avenue in Phoenix will provide information on the next steps of the initiative and how to look at your school’s data.
“What I saw as a real strength is all the different organizations involved, the emphasis for me is getting families better informed to be better advocates for their children,” said Carol Boone, who worked 45 years in juvenile justice in Arizona and other places after the launch event.
Then on Oct. 20th, local and national leaders will meet in Phoenix for a summit to identify policy solutions to end exclusionary disciplinary practices in Arizona.
The initiative grew from the concerns of parents of students of color or other ethnicities and parents of students with special needs who felt their children were targeted by exclusionary discipline practices.
“Over the past couple of years, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona has received an increasing number of complaints from parents who were extremely frustrated because their kids had been suspended or expelled from school,” said Alessandra Soler, executive director of the group.
“We had moms contact us who had kids with special needs who were told ‘I’m sorry we don’t have services for you here, please go elsewhere,’” Soler said. “We had moms of students of color who were being overdisciplined for minor offenses, things like having an afro, which violated the dress code.”
Local data reflects national trend
When the ACLU of Arizona investigated these issues, the group learned Arizona doesn’t release its data on suspensions and expulsions to the public, so they collected the data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
“What we learned confirmed what parents were telling us, that kids, particularly kids of color, English Language Learners and students with disabilities were being kicked out at alarming rates, and some of the worst offenders were some of the high-performing, well-known charter schools here in the Valley in Maricopa County,” Soler said.
The data on what was happening in Maricopa County reflected a national trend described by many researchers over the years that is detailed in the U.S. Department of Education’s Laws & Guidance on School Climate and Discipline.
These exclusionary practices push kids out of school during the enrollment process or through discipline that can lead to voluntary withdrawals as “parents are counseled out from the individual schools,” Soler said,
“Certain kids are being denied enrollment in (charter) schools, because they have special needs or they have prior disciplinary issues,” Soler said.
Photo gallery: Demand2Learn launch event – Photos by Lisa Irish/AZEdNews
Working together to solve the issue
These exclusionary practices impact everyone so Demand2Learn, shared their data on their website, and is partnering with parent groups, schools and community organizations to end them, Soler said.
“What we all want is for our kids to learn, we want them to think critically, help others and learn how to resolve conflict in a positive way,” Soler said.
Since parents play an important role in advocating for their children, Demand2Learn created a toolkit on their website to help parents with many of the situations they may be dealing and partnered with the Black Mothers Forum, Soler said.
Janelle Wood with the Black Mothers Forum said members of the group have gone to Demand2Learn’s advocacy training and are available to accompany parents when they meet with school officials to discuss issues and help them effectively communicate what their child needs and partner with their children’s teachers and school.
“There’s great power in knowledge, and when we come together we can see the change that we want to happen,” Wood said. “Many mothers have told us they’ve benefited from our input and our support as they go through these challenges.”
After sharing the data with district and charter schools in diverse neighborhoods, a group of schools voluntarily committed to reducing the numbers of students suspended and expelled – one is Balsz Elementary School District.
For the past couple of years, Balsz Elementary School District has been looking at its own data on student discipline and has found that it is disproportionate among different student groups, said Dr. Jeff Smith, superintendent of the district in Phoenix that serves more than 2,600 children.
Now, school leaders are working together to “see what’s happening in our schools, what conditions do we have here that are creating this, that are perpetuating this school to prison pipeline and get past the defensiveness,” Smith said.
To that end, “we are starting a restorative justice center in our district,” said Smith, noting that it will also serve as a resource to other school districts.
Restorative justice is an approach to discipline that focuses on repairing harm through inclusive processes that engage all stakeholders and shifts the focus of discipline from punishment to learning and from the individual to the community, according to an Education Week article.
“Our students are going to graduate and live in a world and work with a very diverse group of people,” said Jill Humphreys, a member of the Gilbert Unified School District Governing Board. “When they learn in school how to get along with people who may have different viewpoints, they’re going to be stronger and more capable and resilient as an adult.”
Partnerships with community organizations have also helped Demand2Learn consider possible solutions, Soler said.
After discussing students’ and schools’ needs, Valle del Sol is providing evidence-based behavioral health services for students at school campuses in six school districts in Maricopa County including Balsz Elementary, said Carmen Heredia, chief of Arizona operations of the group that invests in health and human services to strengthen families.
Another result of these partnerships is that Rising Youth Theatre will present a play in mid 2018 based on responses to a brief survey that their members asked people they met if they’ve ever been disciplined in school and how it affected them.
What it all comes down to is this: “How can anyone learn if they can’t be who they are?” said Gabriel Fuentes, a Hopi and Latino student who spoke at the launch event.
Fuentes described feeling lost in school because he moved around a lot, attended many different schools and didn’t know how to ask for the help he needed. But a summer program he attended changed that.
“I learned to respect my culture, my identity, even living in the city that I’m still indigenous, and where I walk my ancestors are behind me,” said Fuentes, who plans to be a social worker and give back to his community. “I just really want to see the youth know that they matter. That any school that they choose, that they’re welcome, that they have that choice.”