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Alabama’s ‘Culture of Removal’ Takes Toll on Black Students

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Corey Jones stands with his son, CJ, outside of their home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. CJ ended up leaving Bryant High School in 2023 after a long-running dispute about a disciplinary incident. (Savannah Tryens-Fernandes/AL.com)

By Savannah Tryens-Fernandes | stryens-fernandes@al.com

CJ wanted to take his mom to prom. He wanted to have his parents walk him out to the mound on his high school baseball team’s senior night, with college prospects who had courted him throughout the summer in the stands.

But after some of his friends smelled like weed during the first semester of his senior year at Paul Bryant High School in Tuscaloosa, those hopes disappeared.

“It was all taken away from me for no reason. Taken away from me like it was a joke,” CJ said. AL.com is not using CJ’s full name because he was never charged with a crime.

CJ spent his senior year in a disciplinary limbo after he would not confess to something he said he didn’t do. He was held in in-school suspension, disqualified from playing baseball and eventually sentenced to alternative school, paying a steep price for proclaiming his innocence. The situation snowballed until CJ couldn’t graduate with his friends or participate in his athletic season.

In Alabama, Black students are nearly twice as likely to face every type of classroom removal as compared to their white peers.

During the 2018-2019 school year, Alabama students spent 203,465 days in alternative school. And, although Black students made up only 32% of the student population in 2019, they served almost 60% of those alternative school days, according to an AL.com analysis of the most recent year of data provided. White students, who made up about 55% of the population, served only 33% of the days given.

Experts at Auburn University call it a “culture of removal of Black students” in Alabama, which can have a number of harmful long-term impacts, including effectively derailing a student’s education and future prospects and negatively affecting their mental health.

Eventually CJ’s parents would withdraw him from the district altogether, so he could be homeschooled, a step more Black families are taking nationwide. At the onset of the pandemic, 3.3% of Black families were home-schooling their children, but as of the end of 2020, the rate rose to over 16% partly due to Black students being over-disciplined, according to researchers.

“That would be like opening the jail cell for my son,” said Cory Jones, CJ’s dad, of sending his son to alternative school.

“Alabama is building mega prisons and I won’t give them my son to help fill them.”

‘I Was Just Scared’

On Nov. 10, 2022, CJ stayed after math class to get help from his teacher. He missed his bus to the Tuscaloosa Career and Technology Academy, where he takes trade classes, and got a ride with a friend and three other students.

When the group of boys arrived at the school, a school resource officer stopped the other four passengers because he smelled weed on them. CJ, walking in a few minutes later, saw his friends being questioned and asked if they were ok. They gave him a thumbs up and he went to class to take a test.

Shortly after, school officials called him to the office where the other students were waiting. CJ said Assistant Principal Ryan Rust and the school resource officer asked the boys if they had marijuana on them. When they said no, the administrator threatened to call in police dogs to find out.

One of the students then admitted to there being weed in the car but no one claimed it was theirs. When officials searched the vehicle, they found eight grams of marijuana by the passenger side, according to investigation documents reviewed by AL.com.

Officials then pulled each boy into a separate room “to be interrogated,” CJ said. Although he didn’t admit to using the drugs, he was read his Miranda rights. He kept telling the officer he didn’t understand what was happening so they read them again.

“All I could think was that I was going to jail. I was just scared,” CJ said.

The school called his mom to pick him up. The driver was taken to juvenile detention. CJ and another boy were given Class 3 offenses, which comes with in-school suspension and a Disciplinary Review Committee hearing to decide on alternative school placement. Two students received no punishment at all, according to parents whose children were involved. No explanation was ever given to the Jones family or to AL.com regarding the differences in punishment.

CJ sat in in-school suspension, missing his classes, for over two months while awaiting a disciplinary hearing. He then was removed from school altogether and given an additional 45 days of alternative school.

When he received his punishment, he went into the stairwell to cry.

“I couldn’t believe it. I was just so angry,” he said.

Since his removal, CJ has kept to himself and spent most of his time alone at home. His dad began sending him to counseling after noticing what seemed like depression and anxiety.

In a statement to AL.com, Tuscaloosa City Schools Superintendent Mike Daria said “Tuscaloosa City Schools is committed to following established policies and procedures for addressing any disciplinary issues that may arise, including alternative placement when deemed necessary…It is also important to note that our strategic plan includes a strong focus on student success. We aim to provide all students with equitable access to academically rigorous courses and social-emotional learning opportunities that lead to success. This commitment is at the core of our district’s mission.”

The school district declined to comment further about CJ’s case or his family’s complaints due to legal obligations to maintain student confidentiality.

Disproportionate Punishment

According to data from student incident reports, Black students face the most amount of time in alternative school in Alabama.

Experts say alternative school comes with a loss of learning time, disruption of relationships with peers and staff members in the short term, as well as a higher likelihood of being incarcerated later in life. There are even connections to poorer health and economic outcomes in the long term.

Tell the Ed Lab: Share your story about school discipline, alternative school with a reporter.

CJ’s parents weren’t willing to subject their son to that fate without evidence of wrongdoing. Jones, who also went through the Tuscaloosa City Schools system as a student, said of all his friends who went through alternative school, most ended up in jail at some point.

Jones reached out to the district several times for an explanation and hired a lawyer, but officials weren’t willing to speak with the family with a lawyer present and would not answer questions about the investigation. Instead, they sent letters home insisting CJ attend orientation at alternative school.

The school district went back and forth during its investigation, creating too many inconsistencies from the very first day, Jones said:

  • CJ was pulled out of class and sent back multiple times because he didn’t walk in with the other students and staff couldn’t say whether he smelled like weed.
  • He was first given a disciplinary letter punishing him with a Class 2 offense. That letter was quickly taken out of his hand and replaced with an elevated offense. His parents never got an answer as to why his punishment was heightened.
  • He was taken into a separate room to be questioned and was eventually read his Miranda rights. CJ told the school resource officer repeatedly that he did not understand what was happening. It was only after he was read his rights that the district called his mom to pick him up.
  • CJ was told in the separate room that his other friends told officials it was his weed, but all official documents said no one claimed it belonged to them and only the driver was charged.

‘Prison-Like’ Schools

The trust the Jones family initially had in the school system began to break down at an Individualized Education Plan meeting to determine whether CJ’s disciplinary infraction was connected to his learning disability. The meeting is required for all students with disabilities who are accused of disciplinary issues.

The meeting didn’t happen until January, 62 days after the incident occurred.

According to Jones, they were told the holidays made it hard for different school administrators to meet and assess CJ’s case.

For all that time, CJ was sitting in in-school suspension in an isolated wing of the building.

When the Jones family sat down at the hearing, the paper before them already had “45 days of alternative school” written on it, they said. They didn’t understand how a punishment was decided before their meeting even started.

CJ briefly stood up to stretch his legs and one of the staff members called security.

“He literally just stood up and they were afraid of him,” Jones said.

From there, the family moved to the Disciplinary Review Committee hearing where they did not know any of the staff members who were making the final decision about their son’s punishment. Again, the DRC – which was composed of six members, including central office staff, a social worker from the alternative school and Rust – moved swiftly without much input from the Jones family.

Lawyers are not permitted at DRC meetings in Tuscaloosa City, so the attorney the Jones family hired had to sit outside the door.

In March, Tuscaloosa City Schools changed its code of conduct to require students charged with certain Class 2 offenses or higher to go to the DRC, a move experts say contributes to a punitive environment and erosion of relationships between families and school staff.

“It’s not a solution. It’s overlooking any of the whys and hows and takes anybody who actually knows these kids out of the picture. When students go to those hearings, they’re going to be faced with people who don’t know them and don’t have any specific concern about them,” said Valerie Trull, a Tuscaloosa City parent who advocated against the new policy and is a college instructor of juvenile criminology.

The concept of a “school to prison pipeline” has been around for decades.

Now, experts say, schools themselves are also becoming more punitive and focused on discipline. Students don’t even have to be charged with a crime, some researchers say, to be treated like criminals.

“The ‘pipeline’ metaphor only gets us so far… schools have been prison-like in many ways for a long time, where we rely on surveillance, punishment, and exclusion instead of investing in relationships, support, and community,” said Hannah Baggett, an associate professor at Auburn who wrote a book analyzing school discipline policies in Alabama.

Alabama doesn’t have a statewide guarantee of due process in school discipline, allowing each district to set its own policies. A bill that would standardize those rights appears dead in the legislature.

During a public hearing on State Sen. Rodger Smitherman’s bill earlier this month, Jerome Dees, Alabama policy director at Southern Poverty Law Center, recalled a case similar to CJ’s. A student athlete was suspended for months due to allegations of smoking marijuana in the parking lot. Even after turning in two negative drug tests, the student was sent to alternative school, which “resembled more of a prison and offered a highly inferior education,” Dees said at the hearing. The student lost a college scholarship.

‘A Punitive Turn’

According to Baggett and Auburn professor Carey Andrezejewski, there is a “long-standing and deep-rooted…culture of removal of Black students” nationwide and in Alabama public schools.

The introduction of zero-tolerance policies in the 1990s marked “a punitive turn’ for schools.” Teenagers, particularly Black young men, were described as ‘super predators’ who were falsely portrayed as being predisposed to criminal activity.

The use of alternative schools in particular, which were once options for students who had trouble learning in traditional K-12 environments, has “risen dramatically in the last two decades” as they have evolved into disciplinary spaces, according to Baggett and Andrezejewski. According to the Urban Institute, nationwide enrollment in alternative schools that serve disciplinary purposes has grown from 200,000 students in 1992 to over 400,000 in 2019.

Baggett and Andrezejewski both used to teach in alternative schools in Alabama and say many alternative schools are composed almost exclusively of students of color, who report feeling stigmatized by the placement and having difficulty returning to their original school.

In 2019, of the 203,465 total days served in alternative school in Alabama, 120,374 days were served by Black students. AL.com found similarly disproportionate rates for suspension and in-school suspension.

Research shows that Black students do not misbehave more than white students. Instead, students across racial groups exhibit similar patterns of misbehavior, but Black students are more likely to be surveilled and criminalized by teachers and staff, according to Baggett and Andrezejewski.

In Tuscaloosa City Schools, Black students, who make up 69% of the district population, spent 1.4 times the amount of days in alternative school compared to white students, according to student incident reports from 2017-2019 reviewed by AL.com.

“We do have preventative measures in place to reduce [alternative school] placements and other exclusionary actions. Some of those programs include positive behavior support plans and we identify students that have at-risk behaviors prior to the school year starting, so that behavior contracts can be developed,” a spokesperson for the district said, noting additional programs such as a safe environment initiative and wrap-around services available for students at the alternative school.

Even with additional services available at alternative schools, researchers question their effectiveness.

“There tends to be somewhat limited resources in terms of the staffing, in terms of the support, guidance, supervision that students are given while in that environment,” said Richard Welsh, professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University. “There are legitimate questions on the effectiveness… especially given the loss of learning time, instructional time and the disruption of relationships with peers and with teachers.”

‘Break the cycle’

CJ has felt he’s been treated differently from white students throughout his school career. He says teachers have ignored his raised hand to give extra attention to white classmates, and that he’d get in trouble for dreadlocks and dress code violations when white students never were questioned on their appearance.

According to Baggett and Andrezejewski, dress code violations are a common cause of removal for Black children, as are other offenses like disruption and defiance, which are inherently subjective and up to the interpretation of staff.

Where many students have struggled with virtual schooling throughout the pandemic, CJ’s grades have improved.

“I’m free,” he said. “Google isn’t going to get mad at me if I keep asking the same questions. I don’t have to worry about what’s happening with everyone else and can just focus on myself.”

Jones said his son’s struggle with the school system has been “an awakening.”

He remembers when he was a student, his teacher predicted he would become a hearse driver. He thought they had low expectations for him. He recognized the same limitation being placed on his son beginning in elementary school when CJ was given the class clown award and told he should be a comedian.

Jones said the family immediately gave the award back.

“I can see the line from my father to my son,” he said. “They won’t give us an education, won’t teach us our history. They have deprived us of a chance. Who am I if I don’t know my history but am taught to go to jail?”

Jones joined the military after graduating from Central High School and worked drug reconnaissance to prevent traffickers from entering the United States. He says his time in the Navy was the first time he was given a meaningful education.

But until his son was being sentenced to alternative school, he accepted his family’s experience as normal.

According to Baggett, strong relationships with teachers are central to better disciplinary outcomes for students.

“The relationship comes first between the teacher and the student between the teacher and the administrator, between the administrator and the family. And that ecosystem is what has to be healthy in order for kids to be healthy,” said Baggett. “At the end of the day, the relationships are what matters and if we’re not investing in those relationships, and we’re just relying on these systems of punishment and exclusion, then we just keep doing the same thing over and over again.”

CJ said his only close relationship with a teacher has been with his baseball coach.

“There is no one trying to help him,” Jones said. “Where’s the attempt to rehabilitate him if he really did what they’re saying?”

For now, CJ’s focus is on graduating with his new homeschool class at Riverside Christian Academy.

“I want to be able to say I walked the stage,” he said. “But I’m also just ready to leave.”

He will graduate with three other high school seniors on May 26. There will be a small reception afterward where the families can celebrate together. CJ hopes to attend Shelton State, a community college in Tuscaloosa. He still believes he’ll be able to walk on to the baseball team.

“I am determined to make this work. Maybe some of the things I missed out on in high school I can have in college,” he said.

Reporter Trisha Powell Crain contributed to this story which appeared originally on the www.Al.com website