Midtown Raleigh News

Wiggins: Parents, students learn their rights in workshop

An upcoming back-to-school workshop will offer timely information on the legal rights of students – and parents – in public schools.

The hosts are the Push Out Prevention Project of Advocates for Children’s Services, a statewide project of Legal Aid of North Carolina. They’ll be assisted by Education Justice Alliance, NC H.E.A.T. (Heroes Emerging Among Teens) and other community members.

The workshop is Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Martin Street Baptist Church.

The free event includes interpretation for Spanish speakers, child care for children ages 3-11 and lunch.

The schedule is full of information, tips and strategy, too. Among the topics:

• How to ensure your child’s academic success and avoid unnecessary failure.

• How to navigate special education services for your child.

• How to deal with discipline/suspension when it happens to your child.

• How to deal with school police as a parent or a student.

• How to become the strongest parent advocate you can be for your child.

It’s a sobering sign of the times that a conversation about learning and memorizing our rights – amid policies that put police in schools and students behind bars – has become as routine as talk about back-to-school bedtimes, supplies, class schedules and fashions.

But it is timely, especially in a state ranking high in suspension rates and among the only two states in the country that automatically charge, prosecute and sentence all 16- and 17-year-olds as adults.

Remember, the 2012-13 school year ended with seven students and a parent arrested after a water-balloon prank went awry at Enloe Magnet High School, a school known as much for its academic and arts programs as it is for its authentic melting-pot diversity.

Charges ranging from disorderly conduct to assault and battery were met by countercomplaints from both the arrested students and the parent of unnecessary force by police and erroneous arrests in a chaotic environment induced by overreaction to otherwise harmless behavior. They also learned their rights were violated when students weren’t allowed to call their parents before being booked, which is against district policy.

“Folks don’t know their rights,” said Jason Langberg, director of Legal Aid’s Push Out project.

“There is a multitude of very detailed, clear education rights of families in public schools,” he said, including everything from state statutes and regulations to local school board policies. “It can be very difficult for families to navigate.”

That’s especially true for low-income families, those with low levels of education, those who haven’t had any experience with the legal system, and any family not informed of their rights by the school system, Langberg added.

“There are 150,000 kids in the school system, and only a small handful of advocates available to help them,” Langberg said. “We want this to be an opportunity for students and parents to have the knowledge and tangible, concrete tools to advocate for themselves.”

Otherwise, Langberg said, lack of awareness about legal rights will continue to harm students’ achievement in school. It also fuels the school-to-prison pipeline resulting from policies and practices that disproportionately push students who are poor, black or disabled – or all three – from schools into prisons.

Statewide last year, nearly 800,000 school days were missed from 260,000 short- and long-term suspensions. That doesn’t include the thousands of untracked days spent in in-school suspension and alternative programs, Langberg said. He noted that legislation proposed in the last legislative session would expand the problem.

A retired Wake County educator, Rukiya Dillahunt, is familiar with the advocacy of Legal Aid N.C. through its work to investigate Wake County’s disproportionate suspension rates of students of color.

“Wake County is one of the highest counties in suspension around the country,” said Dillahunt, who taught special education at Enloe, served three years as president of the Wake North Carolina Association of Educators and retired in 2010 as an assistant principal at Mary E. Phillips High School, an alternative school for students struggling in regular schools. “Even I didn’t realize that working in the system,” she said. “It makes you realize the school-to-prison pipeline is here.

“The Enloe case is a clear example of how kids are pushed out of school.”

Dillahunt continues to advocate through the Education Justice Alliance and the Southeast Raleigh Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African-American Students.

“We have been working to educate parents on how to become advocates for their students, and one of the main things you have to do is you have to be aware of your rights,” she said. “It’s needed.”