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Story from the field: Children of color pushed out of Alabama schools over social media posts

An SPLC community advocate describes how an Alabama school district’s surveillance of students’ social media activity is leading to unnecessary expulsions and suspensions for minority students.

Jamie’s father was murdered violently while she was in middle school. To honor his memory, her family made sweatshirts with an airbrushed image of his face and name. It was this memorial that later led to her suspension from school in Huntsville, Alabama.

During her first-period class, the principal called Jamie to his office. A school resource officer – a police officer stationed in Huntsville City Schools – immediately interrogated Jamie. With a photo from Jamie’s Instagram account in his hand, the officer asked, “Are you part of a gang?” 

The colors of Jamie’s commemorative sweatshirt, which she was wearing in the photo, apparently raised suspicions that she was a gang member. The officer also claimed that the “OK” sign she was making with her hands was a gang sign.

When Jamie attempted to explain herself, the officer snapped: “Be quiet or you will be suspended. … We can take you to jail for this.” There was no formal disciplinary hearing for her to explain that the sweatshirt wasn’t a sign of gang membership, but rather the sign of a daughter honoring her slain father.

Nevertheless, she was suspended for five days.

Jamie wasn’t the only one subjected to such treatment. School officials regularly trawled social media sites for student photos that might violate its code of conduct. The district even hired a former FBI agent to track student social media activity.

When students were expelled over social media posts, there was a glaring racial disparity.

During the 2013-14 school year, 12 of the 14 students expelled over social media posts were African-American students – a disturbing figure when considering that African-American students are only 40 percent of the district’s student population. During our investigation, we interviewed 22 African-American students who were expelled, referred to GED programs or placed in alternative schools because of their social media posts.

Even worse, records show that African-American children represent 78 percent of all expulsions in the district.

Earlier this year, the Southern Poverty Law Center urged a federal court to ensure there are safeguards within the school district’s discipline policies to end this disparity. Our  recommendations were included in comments filed in a long-running Department of Justice case involving the school district, which is currently under a 45-year-old desegregation order.

It was clear from our investigation that the district’s policies were pushing out students who were no threat to other students. We encountered dozens of African-American students expelled for simply posing with BB guns in their own backyard or with a group of friends at home.

At disciplinary hearings, student explanations clearly didn’t matter as much as the assumptions held by school officials. It was obvious that the students we represented at these hearings were presumed guilty. One student was told that he was “holding too much money” in a photo he had posted. School officials jumped to the conclusion that it might be evidence that he had committed a robbery.

When another student tried to tell the disciplinary panel that she was holding a toy gun in a photo, the panel responded, “Well, we don’t know that. We can’t tell if it’s a BB gun or not.” It didn’t matter that she was trying to tell them now: She was expelled for seven months.

Fortunately, a new agreement was reached in the Department of Justice’s case against the school district that will reportedly eliminate this surveillance program. That’s welcome news. The presumption of guilt for minority youth has been palpable in this school district, as it is in too many school districts. That’s why the SPLC works to change policies such as those in Huntsville. These young people should be treated like students – not criminals. Children shouldn’t have to worry that the colors of their sweatshirt could get them kicked out of school.

Sharada Jambulapati is a community advocate fellow for the SPLC.