Wheeler: An advocate for suspended students who need one

bwheeler@newsobserver.comAugust 23, 2012 

COURTESY OF JASON LANGBERG

  • About the program Advocates for Children’s Services is a statewide project of Legal Aid of North Carolina Inc. that provides free legal advice and representation to children who need education, mental health, special education or foster care services and partners with community groups to educate children, parents and advocates about their rights and how to enforce them effectively. www.legalaidnc.org/acs.
  • Problems and solutions Here are three Wake County school-discipline issues that Jason Langberg, lawyer for Advocates for Children’s Services, has targeted: 1. Alternative education: Create more seats at alternative schools. The unsupervised online program is not adequate for at-risk children. 2. Suspensions and expulsions: Focus on more high-quality prevention and intervention plans; expand alternatives to removing kids from school such as restorative justice, counseling, drug treatment or Saturday school; require administrators to consider mitigating factors. 3. Disparities in discipline: Create a grid system with uniform repercussions for offenses and minimize administrator discretion. Currently in Wake County, black students are routinely punished more severely than whites for the same offenses. For example, 42 percent of black students committing a first offense of aggressive behavior received short-term suspensions; 9 percent of first-offender whites were suspended. More than 85 percent of black students with a cellphone infraction received a short-term or in-school suspension; 34 percent of white students did.

Tucked inside an inch-thick stack of opinions that lawyer Jason Langberg has written about Wake County’s school-to-prison pipeline over the past two years is a small cartoon that puts an exclamation point on his tens of thousands of words.

In it, a man dangles a student from the second-story window of an alternative school as a trampoline held by gang members, a police van and a welfare-system worker wait below. “We can’t afford to save this one,” the man says, “but don’t worry. Someone will catch him.”

Langberg, staff attorney at Advocates for Children’s Services, is tired of the number of kids whom long-term suspensions push out into what will likely be dismal futures. Last school year, that number was nearly 600 students, which doesn’t include the 900 kids banned from buses, effectively parking those with no transportation at home, or the more than 500 in alternative schools.

About 300 received what Langberg considers entirely inadequate, unsupervised online courses. About 300 received ... nothing.

What happened to them? We don’t know. The system keeps no data on those kids, which Langberg finds appalling.

“When you don’t collect data on certain things, it sends a strong message that you don’t care about those things,” Langberg says. “Kids internalize that they don’t want me here and they don’t expect much from me. Along the way in the school-to-prison pipeline, expectations get lower each step into it.”

Langberg’s name comes up fairly frequently on N&O pages – as a writer of letters and Points of Views on our opinions pages and as a critic and lawyer taking aim at Wake County schools in news stories – always as an advocate for children on the edges.

Most recently, he has filed complaints with state education leaders saying that Wake County is failing to educate suspended students with disabilities and that its discipline policies discriminate against black students.

I started wondering who he is.

The force of law

Langberg, 30, a Buncombe County native, lives in Cary with his wife, a Wake elementary school teacher. Since graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill with a degree in political science, he has helped low-wealth families up and down the East Coast, working as a guardian ad litem, an afterschool mentor and a counselor at a camp in upstate New York for kids from the city with severe behavioral issues.

Why the heart for kids?

“I’m not sure what it was,” he says. “I know it has a lot to do with, if we treat kids properly and provide them with what they need, we avoid other problems and issues I’m concerned about as well.”

He got tired of begging people to do the right thing and hoping systems that repeatedly failed kids would simply turn things around on their own. He decided he needed the force of law behind him.

After getting a law degree from Boston College, Langberg became a legal fellow at Advocates for Children’s Services, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina. Since September 2010, Equal Justice Works, a nonpartisan nonprofit in Washington dedicated to working on behalf of underserved communities, has funded Langberg’s position, which is focused on forcing Wake County to address school-discipline issues.

“The school system just waits,” he says. “They’re being reactionary to public pressure, in our case, the lawsuits, which leads to doing it in a piecemeal manner, like rearranging the deck of the Titanic.”

At one point, North Carolina had the third-highest suspension rate in the nation, largely because of Wake County, which handed out more than 1,000 long-term suspensions five years in a row between 2004 and 2009. The county logged more than 17,000 short-term suspensions last year.

The big picture

What Langberg wants is for the county to abandon its whack-a-mole approach and to adopt a holistic system that recognizes that kids who act up (the reason for the vast majority of suspensions) often have problems that need to be addressed through mental health services, restorative justice programs, drug treatment services or through more seats at alternative schools.

No child should be sent home to video games or to the vagaries of the streets. For starters, that’s no deterrent against repeat misbehavior. But more importantly, every time a kid who’s already at-risk misses school, it becomes so much harder to graduate. What the system is doing, Langberg says, is throwing them away. Like trash.

“Because of our limited resources and because of misperceptions, the new normal is that some kids are gonna make it and some aren’t,” he says.

It’s yet another delicate thing we balance here. We don’t want our schoolteachers disrespected. We don’t want eager students disrupted by others’ bad behavior. Classrooms must have order.

But we also have to recognize that removing kids, so many of whom are carrying such heavy home-life burdens, entirely from the educational table hurts us all.

“We all pay when we don’t serve kids,” Langberg says. “It costs us economically both in lost productivity of citizens who don’t have an education and in terms of expenses that society has to bear later on, in policing, incarceration, public benefits. We can pay less now or more later. The way we’re headed is we’re paying more later.”

bwheeler@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4825

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