The Problems in Jefferson Parish Schools Are Systemic

In Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish Public School System, African-American students face a harsh reality.

Typical teenage misbehavior, such as horseplay or cursing, doesn’t result in a trip to the principal’s office. Instead, these students are shipped off to alternative schools where they often languish for months, even years.

They sit in front of a computer screen for hours as they work through a series of online courses. There is a teacher in the room, but the teacher is simply there to answer questions. There’s no instruction, no classroom discussions or extracurricular activities. No accommodations are made for students with disabilities. This is the “school” the district provides for these students.

But it’s the numbers that tell the most disturbing story: African-American students account for 78 percent of all alternative school referrals in Jefferson Parish. But they are only 46 percent of the district’s student population.

And, sadly, these students may be the lucky ones.

Breaking a school rule in Jefferson Parish often results in an arrest for African-America students. During the 2010-11 school year, African-American students accounted for more than three-quarters of all school arrests in the district. The same was true during the 2009-10 school year.

Again, this is a district where African-American students are less than half of the student population.

This isn’t about bad kids getting the punishment they deserve. There’s no evidence that such lopsided discipline rates are due to African-American students inherently behaving worse. This is about discriminatory policies that criminalize African-American youth by pushing them out of the classroom and into the juvenile justice system for typical student misbehavior.

It’s why the Southern Poverty Law Center has filed two federal discrimination complaints against the Jefferson Parish Public School System this year. We filed one complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in January. That complaint cited the racial disparities in school arrests. We filed a second complaint with the department this month. This time we took aim at the alternative school policies.

Sadly, Jefferson Parish isn’t the only school district where we’ve discovered discriminatory policies threatening the future of students. Across the South we’ve found school districts where students of color or students with disabilities bear the brunt of discriminatory policies. We’ve found school districts where students of color have been handcuffed, shackled or even pepper-sprayed for minor violations of school rules. Most important, we’re working to end these practices.

Much of this discrimination is born out of assumptions and fear, particularly in regard to young African-American men. Such beliefs were vividly demonstrated in Jefferson Parish when a school district psychologist posted shocking comments online about African-American youth.

Mark Traina, a child psychologist for the district, tweeted that “Young Black Thugs” should be “[p]ut down like the Dogs they are” instead of incarcerated. Traina, who is white, also has referred to himself as a “Wallace Man at Heart,” a reference to former Alabama Gov. George Wallace and his staunch segregationist stance during the civil rights movement.

Remarkably, Traina has held the future of countless students in his hands. He participated in decisions related to students’ placement in alternative schools, including several students mentioned in the SPLC’s recent complaint. Traina’s comments created national and even international headlines. He has since resigned.

When a school official holds such views, there’s little doubt it can threaten the future of countless students of color. But what’s happening in Jefferson Parish cannot be blamed on one former school official. You don’t need to shout your prejudices from the rooftops – or post them on the Internet – to derail young lives.

The problems in Jefferson Parish – and in other school districts we’ve worked to reform – are systemic. They’re the result of harsh discipline policies that criminalize student misbehavior—misbehavior that in the past would have resulted in a trip to the principal’s office, not alternative school or juvenile court.

And they’re the result of assumptions that cast any misbehavior by a youth of color as a tell-tale sign of inherent criminality. We see it in Jefferson Parish’s alternative schools. And we see it elsewhere in statistics that show African-American youths are much more likely to be stopped by police and to be arrested than their white peers for similar offenses.

When our expectation for these children is failure and criminality, we shouldn’t be surprised to discover school policies that fulfill it. We must value the potential of all children and end school policies that needlessly ruin young lives. The cost of inaction is simply too high.