When Does Discipline in School Border on Cruelty?

Kari Harden


From the Louisiana Weekly and republished by our content partner New America Media:



At Carver Collegiate, the family handbook describes in great detail precisely how students should walk, talk, dress, sit, raise their hand, and move their eyes.


Volume levels at lunch are hushed (level 2), and silent in the hallways (level 0).


Demerits are given if a student does not lock their elbow while raising their hand, does not smile while shaking hands, does not walk on the taped line in the hallway, does not track the speaker with their eyes, or if both feet are not flat on the floor while seated.


The handbook instructs “scholars” to always be grateful: “Scholars say ‘Thank you’ when they receive something – even the opportunity of being called upon to answer a question during a class.” And how to answer questions: “If you ask a scholar, ‘Did you have a nice weekend?’ a scholar will respond, ‘It was nice. How was yours?’”


According to the handbook: “If a scholar is passing an adult in the hallway, he or she should make eye contact with the adult and smile.”


A student can receive a demerit if she or he has on more than one bracelet, if the bracelet is not green, orange, white, gold, silver, or black, or for wearing a belt that is made of cloth rather than of leather or a material resembling leather.


“If the scholar cannot get the proper uniform piece dropped-off and they refuse to wear loaner items they will be suspended from school the following day,” the handbook says.


And there is the (often subjective) demerit for acting in any way deemed disrespectful.


Accumulated demerits lead to suspensions, and Carver Collegiate has the city’s highest out-of-school suspension rate at 68.85 percent, meaning that nearly 70 percent of the student body was suspended out of school at least once during the 2012-2013 school year.


The state average for out-of-school suspensions is 9.2 percent, which is higher than the national average.


Any faculty member, including first-year teachers without a degree in education, has the authority to suspend a student with requiring another level of approval.


But Carver Collegiate is not a military academy and it’s not an alternative school – it’s a public (charter) high school.


And these aren’t bad kids, they are just kids.


To some, it’s seen as structure and grooming. But to others, the “hyper-discipline” is seen as oppressive, irrational, belittling, and even abusive.


On Tuesday, New Orleans attorneys Anna Lellelid and Bill Quigley filed a civil rights complaint on behalf of parents and students requesting local, state, and federal investigations into three schools, including Carver Collegiate, regarding discipline policies and culture they allege to be abusive and in violation of the law.


“I’ve heard from students who say they feel so depressed to be treated this way, but they feel they can’t speak out because they will get in trouble,” said Anna Lellelid.


The complaint “demanded an immediate investigation into whether students were subjected to emotional and physical abuse under the guise of ‘discipline,”’ according to a press release.


Lellelid calls it a “culture of fear and intimidation,” and questions whether the (majority white) administrators would put their own children in the (majority-Black) schools they run, unconditionally exalting and defending their approach to education.


Teachers who leave the school are required to sign a non-disparagement clause.


The complaint against Collegiate Academies, the Charter Management Organization that runs Carver Collegiate, Sci Academy and Carver Prep, represents 20 students, 12 parents, and one teacher.


The complaint alleges that the policies and practices violate the students’ right to an education by constantly kicking them out, as well as laws that prevent schools from suspending students without documentation, due process, or properly notifying parents.


There are also violations of laws related to students with special needs, the complaint charges.


Examples cited include excessive suspensions and inappropriate punishments for students with disabilities without properly notifying parents of meetings and decisions regarding Individualized Education Plans (IEPs).


According to the complaint: “One student diagnosed with autism and cerebral palsy was punished because he was unable to walk in a straight line due to his uncontrollable muscle spasms.”


The complaint references an autistic child who was called “stupid” by his teacher, who then permitted the other students to throw things at the autistic child. Also described is a student with an IEP who was made to sit in the back of the class every day facing the wall, and a student with disabilities who claimed that “Carver Collegiate falsified his transcript by stating that he had taken courses that he had not taken.”


Other concerns in the complaint address safety concerns for students who, after being suspended, spend their day hanging out at the park and library, or are required to stay late for detention and then take public transportation home.


The experiences and sentiments expressed by the 20 students who were willing to go on the record echoes what they have heard from many, many others, Lellelid said.


In November, about 100 students walked out in protest of Collegiate policies. In addition to getting “disciplined for anything and everything,” their concerns, presented in writing to the board, included not having textbooks, not having a library, having their reading level publicized to peers, not being allowed to go to the bathroom for long periods of time, and not being able to bring their own food when the school’s lunch left them hungry. The complaint addresses bathrooms with locked doors, and even reports of door handles being removed. Many of the students who walked out were later suspended.


The Southern Poverty Law Center wrote a letter to the board and administration of Collegiate Academies on Dec. 18 in support of the Carver Prep and Carver Collegiate students, and echoing many of the same concerns about a the “poor school climate and harsh disciplinary practices” that lack “pedagogical value.”


“The descriptions of emotional abuse and a demeaning culture of discipline at Collegiate Academies’ schools raise serious civil rights concerns,” Lellelid said in a press release.


Lellelid and Quigley filed the complaint with United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, the Louisiana Recovery School District, and the Louisi­ana Department of Edu­cation, among others.


A month after the November student protest, Collegiate Academies CEO Ben Marcovitz issued an open letter on Dec. 20 to the Collegiate Academies community.


In it, Marcovitz writes that “Scholars are suspended only for more serious infractions, such as verbal altercations, skipping class, destruction of property, and repeated refusal to follow directions, despite multiple interventions.”


But that has not been Lellelid’s experience. She described students who (as a result of demerits) were suspended for bursting out laughing, for coughing too much, for rolling their eyes, and for hugging another student.


One student, whose uncle and brother both were shot and killed, was suspended for wearing the wrong kind of belt on the day she returned, Lellelid said.


Collegiate Academies president Morgan Carter Ripski released the following statement regarding the civil rights complaint:



“Collegiate Academies’ schools remain a popular choice among New Orleans families. We work in partnership with our families to create a school culture and academic program that will help students reach their potential. We look forward to welcoming our students back on Tuesday, and to continue helping them learn and grow.”


But Lellelid challenges the notion of choice. Families can be limited by geography, and many come from Carver families in hopes of carrying on tradition. In addition, if a parent wants to transfer their student after Oct. 1 to a different school, the RSD policies make it extremely difficult. Parents are often simply told that they cannot transfer after Oct. 1. The Carver Collegiate handbook tells parents that if they show up to the school to talk to someone without an appointment, they may wait for hours, and that, “If you have a concern about a school policy, academic grade, discipline decision, or anything else, we ask that you take some time to reflect on it before contacting the school. We want to hear your concerns because we value your input and opinion. We also want to make sure every conversation is respectful and productive. We understand that you have very strong feelings about issues concerning your child but if a parent/guardian/family member is disrespectful to a Carver Collegiate teacher or administrator, we will end the conversation and wait to continue it at another time.”


Approximately 15 students have dropped out of Collegiate Academies schools since the November protests, Lellelid said.


Lellelid said that since November, Marcovitz did hold at least one meeting, and that she has seen better documentation regarding suspensions. However she said that the students and parents still do not feel they have been heard, and that the policies continue to hurt students and violate laws.


“As the public, are we okay with those tasked with educating our children continuing to break the law, because they say ‘We are working on it’?”


As taxpayers, we are paying to educate our children, Lellelid said, and based on the numbers, Collegiate seems to be more focused on kicking kids out of school than educating them.


Marcovitz’s publicly funded salary for the 2013-2014 school year is approximately $130,000. Lellelid said she has spoken with first year, uncertified teachers who make an annual salary of $45,000.


Carver Prep and Carver Collegiate opened in 2012 with only a 9th-grade class, adding a 10th grade in 2103. Sci Academy opened in 2008.


Marcovitz wrote that “Suspensions are not correlated with poor drop out or expulsion rates. Collegiate Academies’ 2011-12 drop out rate was 1.6 percent, compared to the state average of 4.7 percent. Collegiate Academies’ 2012-13 expulsion rate was 2.6 percent.”


However Carver Prep and Carver Collegiate did not exist in the 2011-2012 school year.


Marcovitz also points out that a majority of the out of school suspensions (80% at Carver Collegiate for 2012-2013) are only a one-day suspension.


He attributes the November protests to a “a small group of activists. . . making inaccurate claims.”


But Lellelid said that based on her extensive work with students and parents, she believes the civil rights complaint represents a majority of students.


And for Jolon McNeil, Schools First project director & managing director for the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), the sky-high suspension rates (61.36% percent for Carver Prep and 38.9% for Sci Academy) at all three schools raise larger concerns about the emotional, psychological, and long-term effects on the students.



McNeil stresses that the aim of her advocacy work is not just to criticize policies, but to foster conversation with all voices at the table, and to work collaboratively with schools to share best practices and identify effective ways to reduce out of school suspensions.


Suspensions don’t work, McNeil said. For one, if a student is in class, they aren’t learning. In addition, she said she wants administrators to look at whether suspensions are achieving the desired effect – Are suspensions working as a deterrent? Are behaviors changing? By and large, they aren’t effective as a deterrent, she said.


In addition, suspensions increase student disengagement, increase distrust between the students and parents and the school, and increase the chances that kids will enter the juvenile justice system, McNeil said. She said suspensions are also a moderate to strong indicator of later dropping out.


McNeil does not argue against suspension for behavior that is violent or threatens safety and security at the school, but the first thing she wants to know when she see numbers close to 70 percent are “What are they being suspended for?”


When students are getting the same punishment for a subjective and often impulsive catch-all like “willful disobedience” as they do fighting — or even something like not walking on a taped line or a uniform violation – then, McNeil said, as a community we have to ask “Why is this a rule that needs a consequence?”


At many schools across the country, the zero tolerance approach that was initially designed for things like drugs and guns, has been “expanded to anything you don’t want kids to do,” McNeil said.


As with the case of the student who was allegedly suspended for a belt violation after losing two family members, the rules are not individualized, McNeil noted – “Rules are rules are rules.”


Punishment for uniform violations also often “penalizes poverty,” McNeil said.


McNeil also said she wants to see more support and training for teachers throughout the school year in terms of avoiding bias, identifying self-triggers, and making the best possible decisions in the classroom.


Lellelid noted the need for better cultural sensitivity training, as many of the teachers are young, white, uncertified, unexperienced, and from other parts of the country.


The JJPL holds workshops on positive behavior support, and works to give educators numerous (proven effective) tools that can work as alternatives to out of school suspensions.


In his letter, Marcovitz writes that Collegiate Academies does use alternatives including positive reinforcement, peer remediation, and restorative justice techniques.


But McNeil still sees a need fundamentally rethink “not just the consequences of behavior, but why we have the consequences to begin with.”


Many students and parents want the zero tolerance structure, McNeil acknowledges, but that for those who don’t, New Orleans isn’t really an environment of “choice” if the only alternatives are selective admissions schools that are on the opposite side of the city.


“Rules exist for some kids and don’t exist for others,” McNeil said.


The disparities are undeniable. A report released in March by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights found that black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students. The study found that students with disabilities are twice as likely to receive an out of school suspension as students without disabilities.


McNeil stressed that when reform is something that “happens to people,” it is vital to include the voices of community, parents and students in the conversation.


“If we want to get to the educational equity that this reform is supposed to be about, we can’t leave out the data on discipline,” McNeil said. “It’s critical to what is happening in schools, and part of the equation of school success.”


This article originally published in the April 21, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.


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Esparta Palma (Flickr); Google Images; Tom Cochrane (Flickr)
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