Legal training session aims to help students, parents know their rights

cowens@newsobserver.comAugust 14, 2013 

  • Wake County Suspension Statistics, 2011-12

    Short-term suspensions (1 to 10 school days): 14,223

    Long-term suspensions (11 school days or more): 403

    Suspensions for minor misbehavior

    School/class attendance: 1,222

    Non-compliance: 1,125

    Disrespect: 437

    Inappropriate language: 339

    Electronic Devices: 242

    Integrity: 138

    Students suspended at least once: 8,420

— With the start of traditional school right around the corner, Legal Aid of North Carolina will hold free back-to-school training Saturday to equip parents and students alike with knowledge of their rights.

The training is hosted by the Push Out Prevention Project, an initiative of Legal Aid’s Advocates for Children’s Services. The project focuses on what it calls “school push out issues” in Wake County, including suspensions and wrongful placement in alternative schools.

These issues are part of a larger, national phenomenon known as the school-to-prison pipeline, in which students go right out of school into the correctional system.

“It’s really about helping to prepare parents for a new school year and to share information they will hopefully never have to use,” said Julia Nieves, the community outreach director of Advocates for Children’s Services.

The training will focus on topics such as how to deal with suspensions; special education rights for students with disabilities; the rights of interrogated, searched, locked up or arrested students, and how to ensure a student’s academic success. School members passed a new policy reducing long-term suspensions in 2011 and are discussing using alternate punishments, rather than short-term suspensions, for minor misconduct.

During the 2011-12 school year, 8,420 students in Wake County were suspended at least once. The system suspended a disproportionate number of black students, economically disadvantaged students, students with disabilities and male students, according to figures compiled by Legal Aid.

‘Never been higher’

U.S. public school discipline rates “have never been higher” and are nearly double what they were in the 1970s, according to a report by the Poverty and Race Research Action Council.

“When young people fall through the cracks and either feel like they have no other choice or are pushed out … the likelihood of them not returning to school goes exponentially up,” Nieves said.

Edith Resnick plans on attending the training with her daughter. Together, they have struggled to obtain the best education possible for Resnick’s twin grandsons, both of whom are autistic.

It hasn’t been easy. By the time the boys were in third grade, they had attended three schools and were facing the possibility of a fourth. They moved around the school system after being suspended multiple times each for behaviors associated with their disability, Resnick said. Teachers were unable to calm them down or understand their abnormal behavior. Switching schools, she said, was not the answer for her autistic grandchildren.

“Transitions are extremely difficult,” Resnick said. “Just moving from class to class is hard, but moving to another school is so difficult.”

Her daughter contacted a lawyer with Legal Aid, who educated the family on their rights and managed to keep the boys at Kingswood Elementary in Cary. They are still there, in a regular class and working with a special education teacher. They are about to enter the fourth grade, which Resnick said will present new challenges for children with communication issues.

“This workshop is going to give us some ideas as to what we need to know to handle that without having to call Legal Aid every time for help,” she said.

Board backing

John Tedesco, a member of the Wake County school board, said he has worked for the past four years to reduce the number of suspensions, develop different discipline methods and improve alternative school options in the school district.

He said he is supportive of programs like Legal Aid’s back-to-school training.

“We have to teach parents how to advocate for their children, how to understand those systems – and those systems can be complex,” he said.

Jim Martin, also a member of the Wake County school board, said discipline needs to be structured so that children are not taken out of an educational setting for minor infractions.

“There needs to be a difference between separating from a classroom and separating from education,” Martin said.

The training will take place from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Martin Street Baptist Church. Lunch, childcare and interpretation for Spanish speakers will be provided.

Register at www.legalaidnc.org/

Owens: 919-829-4567

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