An SPLC community advocate describes how a Louisiana student’s embarrassing classroom accident led to him being arrested and expelled from school.
It was a rainy afternoon as I pulled into the parking lot of McDonald’s. As I walked in, I was greeted warmly by Ms. Roy* and her son Michael.*
Michael politely stretched out his arm to shake my hand. He smiled shyly as we all sat in a booth. I tried to rationalize how this gentle 14-year-old could have been handcuffed, arrested and placed in a Louisiana alternative school.
It all began three weeks earlier in Michael’s English class. That’s where he realized that he had left his belt at home. And in a moment of carelessness, his pants fell down in class. His teacher firmly reprimanded him over the embarrassing incident. She then sent him off to lunch.
It seemed as if that was the end of the matter.
Later that day, Michael was at football practice when he saw the assistant principal walking toward him. He was taken from football practice in front of his teammates and escorted to her office. The teacher had reported that Michael acted in an inappropriate sexual manner during the incident – an accusation that stunned the student.
For more than an hour he was questioned and yelled at. When Michael’s mother finally arrived, she was shocked by the way her son was being treated. She immediately took him home.
Later that evening, Michael’s mother answered the phone to discover a police officer on the other end. She was told to bring Michael to the police station the next morning – the teacher was pressing charges. At the station, he was subjected to an intense police interrogation. The experience was not only shocking but confusing. Just to obtain a police report listing the exact charges facing a child, a parent must file a motion with the juvenile court – a time-consuming multi-step process.
At the station, she watched as Michael was handcuffed, placed in a police car and taken to the Rivarde Juvenile Detention Center. Michael – a good student who had never been involved in any major disciplinary issue before his arrest – sat alone in a cell for more than five hours before he was released to his mother.
The next day, Michael and his mother were called to the school for a conference with the principal and assistant principal. At the meeting, the expulsion paperwork had already been filled out. Although Michael was present, he was never called on to speak during the meeting. There was no due process. As his mother told me, it seemed as if “everyone had already made up their mind.”
He was expelled.
Michael is like far too many African-American students in the Jefferson Parish Public School System. The district not only has the highest number of school-based arrests in the state, but the overwhelming majority of the students arrested are African American. Out of the 562 students arrested in the last school year, 448 of those students – an astonishing 80 percent – were African American. Only about 42 percent of the district’s students are black.
Even worse, the vast majority of these arrests were for minor infractions, such as throwing Skittles candy on a school bus or yelling in the hallway. The damage from these arrests extends beyond fear, embarrassment and lost class time. They have been proven to have a long-lasting impact on a student’s academic achievement, self-esteem and life trajectory.
In 2012, the SPLC filed a federal complaint because of the disproportionate number of African-American students arrested for minor rule violations in this district. That complaint sparked an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education. Unfortunately, students such as Michael continue to be pushed out of school. That’s why we asked the Department of Justice to intervene in May. We hope it will spark change in Jefferson Parish.
As for Michael, he had been expelled for weeks before the board notified his mother about the alternative school he would attend. By the time his first day of alternative school arrived, he had missed nearly 30 days of class.
At the alternative school, he was unable to pursue his passion for athletics and play alongside his teammates. It was a devastating blow for the all-star athlete who excels in basketball, football, baseball and track and field. He was also away from his friends and classmates. He spent nearly three months in the alternative school where he spent the majority of the day receiving his lessons from a computer.
He felt as though he hadn’t learned anything.
Despite this experience, Michael is trying to get his life back on track. He’s in a diversion program that will allow him to avoid the charges brought against him. He’s also returned to his school and is pursuing athletics again. He had an incredible track season, even earning a spot at the Junior Olympic Games.
But for too many Jefferson Parish students, there isn’t a happy ending after an arrest at school. The experience is simply too much for many young people. Dropping out is often seen as the only option. That’s why the SPLC defends the rights of these children. If we don’t stand up for their rights, talented and bright young people like Michael will slip through the cracks.
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.
Julia Sweitzer is a former community advocate in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Louisiana office.