Southern Poverty Law Center Report Exposes Systemic Failures Plaguing New Orleans Schools

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) today released a new report, Access Denied, that exposes numerous systemic failures plaguing the New Orleans public education system. The SPLC and allied organizations also called on the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) to review the report, which examines the barriers to public education facing New Orleans public school students and their families. The report also provides a roadmap for addressing these issues and making meaningful changes to ensure that every New Orleans public school student has equal access to public education.

“At their meeting this month, the board has the opportunity to finally deliver on the post-Katrina promise of a ‘world class’ public school system for our children,” said Shakti Belway, SPLC attorney and director of policy and community engagement who authored the report. “The board members must finally face the fact that many New Orleans students are still denied even the most basic access to public education. Any new governance structure must first and foremost eliminate these barriers as the most important step to making that promise a reality for all New Orleans schoolchildren.”

In Access Denied, the first in a series of upcoming reports, the SPLC examines specific barriers related to school discipline and the provision of special education services. According to the report, Recovery School District (RSD) expels students from school at a rate that is 10 times the national average. Only 6.8 percent of RSD students with disabilities graduate — even though they have the ability to earn high school diplomas. Some charter schools suspend students at a rate more than 100 times the state average and refuse to admit students with disabilities. The report analyzes the crisis in New Orleans’ classrooms, offers testimonials from parents and students and concludes with recommendations for real reform.

The report also found that New Orleans schools employ discipline practices for even the most minor offenses – practices that have been discredited by experts as ineffective for decades. These discipline policies have included physical abuse of students and the rampant use of suspensions and expulsions as punishment for minor rule violations, a practice that purposely pushes students out of the school system cutting short their education.

Despite the fact that publicly funded schools are required to educate students with disabilities, many New Orleans children have been denied enrollment as a result of their disability, forced to attend schools lacking the resources necessary to serve them. They are often punished with suspensions in record numbers.

The report offers several testimonials from parents and students. Kelly Fischer, the mother of two children in the New Orleans public school system, struggled to find a school in New Orleans. Fischer has an 8-year-old child with special needs.

“I’ve gone to eight different charter schools. Of those schools, five said they would take my application but could not accommodate my son with disabilities,” Fischer said. “Another said they would work with him but were stretched pretty thin. When the schools say they can’t help him, it’s like saying there’s no hope for him.”

The report also documents how school discipline and security policies create an environment of fear and violence throughout New Orleans public schools. Several of the youths profiled in the report were handcuffed for noncriminal violations of school rules. One youth was beaten by school security guards.

Other students tell of school personnel who target them with names, calling them criminals and expelling them for the slightest rule violations. One 9th grade student profiled in the report ponders what his future holds given his struggles with ineffective school discipline practices in New Orleans schools.

“I really want to go back to school so I can go to college,” he said. “I’m worried about how my life is going to end up. I don’t want to end up learning nothing on the street.”

The report concludes with a number of recommendations:

  • Adopting a zero-tolerance policy for brutality committed against students by security guards and school officials. Implementing a data collection system that carefully tracks and reports the use of handcuffs, mace, security batons and physical force used against students.
  • Ensuring that all students receive due process protections before they are removed from school as punishment. Banning the use of school suspensions and expulsions as punishment for minor infractions.
  • Creating a single entity (also known as a local education agency) that is responsible for administering special education services to all public school students in Orleans Parish.
  • Ensuring that New Orleans Public Schools provide equal access to students with special needs and comply with federal law governing the education of children with disabilities.
  • Establishing independent monitors to oversee the provision of school discipline and special education in New Orleans Public Schools. Creating community-based advisory boards comprised of parents and students.

Organizations that contributed to the report include The Orleans Branch of the NAACP, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Pyramid Community Parent Resource Center, Puentes New Orleans, and the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans.