Op/Ed: Lessons from CASD: School policies can promote a culture of discrimination

By Solomon Hunter and Rhonda Brownstein, The Education Law Center

ELCOPEDWhen one or two individuals in an organization blatantly act out in discriminatory ways, it’s easy to imagine that dealing with those individuals, primarily by removing them from the organization, solves the problem. The message, often, is that these individuals were outliers and in no way reflect the views of other members of the organization.

That was the approach last year in the Oxford Area School District, where a school principal was eventually ousted following the disclosure of abusive and discriminatory statements in text messages and email exchanges about students with disabilities. According to parents and advocates, though, the emails and text messages were simply the electronic manifestation of discriminatory in-person interactions occurring on a regular basis.

A year later, and approximately 20 miles away from the Oxford Area School District, come charges revealing that two Coatesville Area School District officials were exchanging racist and sexist text messages about District students and staff.

The two officials have resigned from the District and that is a good, if perfunctory, first step. We would encourage the Coatesville Area School District school board to go a step further and do the challenging but infinitely more important work of examining the culture in which these individuals operated without accountability for their behavior.

Certainly, this is not to say the District’s other leaders, staff and teachers share the views expressed in the exchanges between former Superintendent Richard Como and former Director of Athletics and Activities Jim Donato.

It is to say that this is a moment to examine — truly examine — the daily interactions between administrators and parents, between administrators and teachers and between teachers and students, that have become routine and that, repeated time and again, seep into the culture of an individual school or an entire school district for better or worse.

And it is a moment to recognize that Coatesville is not the only school district in our state that would benefit from that kind of examination.

The Education Law Center, a statewide, non-profit legal advocacy organization, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice seeking an investigation into the discriminatory placement of students in alternative education programs throughout the state — including in the Coatesville Area School District.

The complaint cites Pennsylvania Department of Education data showing that a disproportionately high number of African American students are removed from traditional public schools and sent to educationally inferior alternative education programs, often in violation of federal laws.

While African American students comprise only 15 percent of Pennsylvania public school students, in 2010-11 they comprised 35 percent of the students placed into alternative education programs. Forty-five school districts — including Coatesville — had a disparity of 20 percentage points or more between the percent of African Americans in the district and the percent of African Americans placed in the districts’ alternative education programs.

Those numbers are important, but they don’t tell us the whole story. What’s required is a deeper investigation into the alternative education policies and procedures currently in place, and how school officials understand and act on those policies.

The Department of Justice could conduct that investigation, as requested in the Law Center complaint, but so could a local school board. There’s nothing preventing the Coatesville school board from doing its own research and investigation into how the District handles alternative education placements — and other decisions that may disparately impact children of color.

Understanding how school leaders, from a superintendent to a classroom teacher, interact with students and how students interact with those leaders is a necessary step for any school board. From that understanding, districts like Coatesville can move forward, choosing from a variety of proven practices and programs to improve those daily interactions.

Our digital age provides us with nearly limitless opportunities to track and record our words. That can often prove useful in situations where authority figures abuse their power. But catching someone’s inflammatory text or bigoted email isn’t enough to change a culture of discrimination. To expose that discrimination and bigotry — and eliminate it — we must address the everyday, face-to-face interactions between all members of a school community.

Solomon Hunter, Esquire, is a graduate of Coatesville Area High School and serves on the board of directors of the Education Law Center.

Rhonda Brownstein, Esquire, is the Executive Director of the Education Law Center, a statewide organization based in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

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