John McDonogh High senior Eric Dillard discusses suspension issues at Treme Center gathering. Photo by Jessica Williams.

By Jessica Williams, The Lens staff writer |

What’s the cause of high suspension and expulsion rates in New Orleans public schools?

At a Tuesday night gathering in Treme, public education stakeholders grappled with that question – and strove to find solutions to a problem widely regarded as feeding the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

Led by local activist groups, including Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools, the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children and Young Adults Striving for Success, the discussion at the Treme Center featured first-hand accounts from students who have been suspended or expelled. It was timed to coincide with the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a week-long fight against high push-out rates in public schools.

The problem itself, as illustrated in an earlier Lens article on school pushout rates, is vast and persistent. Despite seven years of statewide incentives to promote good behavior by substituting positive reinforcement for the purely punitive approaches, Louisiana still suspends students at twice the national rate. New Orleans’ statistics are even more troubling, with some schools suspending students at rates 10 times the national average.

Speakers at Tuesday’s event traced the problem to conditions ranging from punitive school cultures to class sizes too big for teachers to manage effectively.

The meeting was facilitated by Betty Burkes, curriculum director of The Rethinkers who has worked in education in Europe and Africa as well as the United States. The audience, of about 50 people, was arranged in a circle around a shifting nucleus of a half-dozen students who discussed their experiences and then were replaced by peers willing to contribute to the conversation. The audience then broke into working subgroups.

Student experiences ran the gamut, from being suspended for having the wrong color shoes to being suspended or expelled for fighting.

Jeremy Carter, a student at Batiste Cultural Arts Academy at Live Oak, recalled being suspended for three days after fighting with another student on the bus. He was then suspended again when his school found out that the fight had broken out again at Carter’s home.

“I didn’t feel that was right,” Carter said. “The principal can’t suspend us for something that happened outside of school. Their excuse was, it was misrepresenting the school off of school property.” Carter said he eventually came to realize that the two of them shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place.

Vernard Carter (unrelated to Jeremy Carter), a student at New Orleans Charter Science and Math High School, said that he believes a major problem among school administrators is that they often play favorites when deciding who gets expelled. Kids who are labeled negatively wind up getting suspended more often and sometimes expelled.

“It’s just like how the police profile people,” he said. “They select the student that they see performing best as their favorite. I see that as a problem, because everyone should have the same disciplinary action. I see the suspensions as a problem. Because if the point of school is to get an education, and you are taking students away from their education, how are they learning?”

Other stakeholders said that suspending kids doesn’t solve underlying problems. “If there’s a problem at the school, they suspend both students, and those kids come back to school, and the problem is still there,” said Carol Kolinchak, legal director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, one of the groups sponsoring the discussion.

Farrell Sampier, a student at Miller McCoy Academy, agreed with Kolinchak. “We need to have more counseling and more anti-bullying sessions. It’s about identifying the problem and solving it as you see fit.”

Jessica Williams

Jessica Williams stays on top of the city's loosely organized collection of public schools, with a special emphasis on charter schools. In 2011 she was recognized by the Press Club of New Orleans for her...