Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Sojourner Truth Academy Suspends 20% of its Senior Class for Singing

From our friends at Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana:
On Friday, November 18th, ten honor-roll seniors at Sojourner Truth Academy were suspended for singing in the school cafeteria during lunchtime. The suspensions occurred without notice or warning, and in violation of the school code of conduct's commitment that prior to a suspension, "a principal or designee must conduct a student conference and school level investigation." The suspension of ten students in a graduating class of forty-five represents one fifth of the senior student body and has threatened the students' access to scholarships, and for some students, their ability to graduate this academic year.

Currently, rates of suspension and expulsion in Louisiana schools are several times the national average. According to "Pushed Out: Harsh Discipline in Louisiana Schools Denies the Right to Education," Louisiana's expulsion rate is five times the national rate. In at least ten schools in New Orleans, the out of schools suspension rate during the 2009-2010 school year exceeded 30%, including Sojourner Truth Academy at 60%, by far the highest rate. Moreover, the overuse of harsh discipline disproportionately affects some Louisiana school children over others. African American students make up 44% of the statewide public school population, but 68% of suspensions and 72.5% of expulsions.

"While punitive discipline policies are a critical issue statewide, the suspension of ten students at Sojourner Truth for singing in one week is one of the most egregious examples of the inappropriate use of school discipline," states Carol Kolinchak, Legal Director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, whose office is helping the students to file appeals on their suspension through a project called Stand Up for Each Other! "These girls were denied all of their due process rights before they were given the suspension, and this will have serious consequences for their educational future. It is shameful that a school administration should act in complete disregard of their mandate to educate the students that attend and inhibit graduation and college."

The inappropriate use of discipline is just one of many ongoing problems that have been identified at Sojourner Truth Academy, by parents, students, and teachers. Members of the school community report problems at the school including, inadequate resources for special education services, improper suspensions and expulsions, staff reassignments and inappropriate terminations, inadequate staffing and funding for programs, a lack of transparency in financial reporting, and threats and intimidation to faculty and staff. According to staff member Marika Barto, "our foremost concern is for the benefit of students at Sojourner Truth, particularly the graduating class of 2012. Our students deserve the same quality of education, the same level of respect, and the same opportunity for success as every other public school student in the state of Louisiana."

The ten girls have appealed their suspension and written a letter to the administration of the school, dubbing themselves the "Sojourner Ten;" they plan to testify at the next Sojourner Truth Board meeting regarding their suspension for singing, as well as broader problems at the school that have impeded the students from learning. "All we want is to complete our school year and graduate and for others to have these same opportunities," said Damonika Stokes, a member of the Sojourner Ten. "Nobody ever warned us that singing was against the code of conduct, or that it would result in punishment. We are hopeful that we can continue our education and move forward in our lives towards graduation."

Members of the Sojourner Ten; parents, including Anna Burns, who says she "is concerned that such a harsh decision on the part of school administration will hurt my child's chances of getting into college;" teachers; and other concerned citizens plan to testify regarding their concerns at the Sojourner Truth Board Meeting at 5:45 pm on Tuesday, November 29th in the cafeteria of the school located at 2437 Jena Street in New Orleans.

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