Education

Wake schools still discriminate, black parents tell federal education officials

Cecilia Glenn speaks during a forum where Wake County parents, students and community members shared concerns with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights Tuesday, April 12, 2016 in Raleigh.
Cecilia Glenn speaks during a forum where Wake County parents, students and community members shared concerns with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights Tuesday, April 12, 2016 in Raleigh. jhknight@newsobserver.com

African-American parents, students and activists told federal education officials Tuesday that the Wake County school system discriminates against black students and disciplines them unfairly.

Officials from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights called for Tuesday’s meeting as part of their ongoing investigation into whether the district’s discipline policies and practices discriminate against African-American students on the basis of race. The message they heard from the audience of around 75 people at the Vital Link Center near downtown Raleigh is that black students are subject to abuse and hostility because of their race.

“The only thing I want for my babies is to get a proper education,” said Cecilia Glenn, a parent. “Why should it be so hard to do that?”

Glenn said her 7-year-old granddaughter was written up at school last week for saying “white people are fools.”

The U.S. Education Department has been investigating North Carolina’s largest school district since November 2010, soon after the state NAACP and other groups filed a federal civil rights complaint. Like many other districts, the percentage of suspensions given to black students exceeds their representation in the overall enrollment.

Wake school officials point to steps that have been taken since 2010 to reduce suspensions, including encouraging schools to use out-of-school suspensions sparingly and, instead, find in-school alternatives.

School officials said they welcome the return of federal officials who are visiting classrooms, staff and families.

“The school system has reduced student suspensions by 34 percent in the past five years while emphasizing positive behaviors as part of its discipline programs,” the district said in a written statement Tuesday. “About 90 percent of our African-American students are never suspended during their school careers.”

But while total suspension are down, the disparity in suspension rates between African-American students and other groups remains, said Jennifer Story, an attorney for Advocates For Children’s Services,

Black students accounted for 63 percent of Wake’s suspensions during the 2014-15 school year while making up 24 percent of the enrollment.

African-American students also accounted for 69 percent of the referrals that school resource officers made to the court system last school year. In addition, black students are 1.7 times more likely to be arrested for fighting and theft than other groups.

Several speakers talked about the hostile attitude that school resource officers have toward black students. Ajamu Dillahunt said police officers should be removed from schools.

“There’s a war on black students,” said Dillahunt, a student at N.C. Central University who graduated last year from Southeast Raleigh High School. “There’s a war on black America.”

Gwen McKenzie talked about going to schools and seeing how white teachers physically grab African-American students. She related how on one occasion she had words with a teacher who had “snatched” her son by his backpack at Southeast Raleigh High.

“They try to break our boys when they are young,” McKenzie said.

Geraldine Alshamy, a parent advocate, talked about how she’s been helping a 5-year-old African-American student who has been suspended five times since January, once for refusing his teacher’s orders to eat a wheat pizza for lunch. Alshamy said that the boy already sees that his white teacher treats the white students better in the class than the black students.

“If a child in kindergarten can already see that teachers are insensitive and teachers are prejudiced, what hope can they have when they’re in 3rd grade?” Alshamy said.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

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