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Challenging racial disparities in school

New PJC project aims to make education more equitable for kids

June 7, 2017:  “No one ever asks us what we think about school.” Several high school students sat talking with Renuka Rege, the Education Equity Fellow at the Public Justice Center. She had just asked what they thought were the biggest issues facing youth at school, and they were eager to share their opinions. Kids are suspended for stupid reasons, like arriving late or not wearing a uniform, one student offered. Teachers are rude and disrespectful, said another. Sending kids to alternative schools is like giving up on them and usually leads to dropping out, a third student shared.

During the fall, Renuka had many conversations like this one to explore racial inequities in Maryland’s public schools. Talking with students, parents, teachers, child service providers, legal advocates, academic experts, and race equity experts, common themes emerged, giving Renuka a sense of the problems the Public Justice Center’s Education Stability Project could help address.

One concern often repeated was “school pushout,” those things that can literally push students out of school. What does school pushout look like? The people Renuka spoke with described how suspension and expulsion are overused and disproportionately applied to children of color. School staff often suspend students as a first resort without addressing the underlying causes of behavior. Or they may call parents to pick up their kids without recording it as a suspension. People also shared concern that struggling students transferred to alternative schools receive a poor education and often end up dropping out. People worried about an unwelcoming school climate, describing class disruptions, poor communication, and strained relationships between teachers, students, administrators, and parents. This combination of factors can prevent or discourage youth from staying on track to complete their education and harm youth of color at a higher rate than their white peers. In turn, numerous underlying causes of student behavior and conflict with staff fuel these drivers of school pushout, including unidentified disabilities, trauma and other mental health issues, academic difficulties, and institutional racism in schools.

So what is the Public Justice Center’s role in addressing these challenges? The people Renuka talked with recommended various solutions, some that schools can implement and others more suited to advocates. After compiling input from everyone, Renuka identified three key areas where the Public Justice Center will contribute across the state:

  • Individual representation. We will represent students in suspension and expulsion cases to protect their due process and substantive rights under state regulations and district policies. We will also represent students transferred to alternative schools to address procedures for transferring students and the quality of education offered.
  • Community education. We will teach youth and parents about their rights in suspension, expulsion, and transfers to alternative schools so that they can advocate for themselves and their children. We will also educate youth and parents on ways to advocate on a systemic level against these exclusionary practices, and in favor of solutions that address the underlying causes of these problems, implement alternative discipline practices and build positive school climates.
  • Systemic advocacy. We will use litigation and administrative complaints to tackle widespread problems with suspension, expulsion, and transfers to alternative schools related to racial disproportionality. We will also conduct legislative, regulatory, and policy advocacy related to these exclusionary practices and the underlying causes of these problems, alternative discipline practices, and school climate.

To learn more about the PJC’s planned work on education equity, click here.

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