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June 16, 2021

When I decided to run for school board director, I made a promise, based on what I was seeing and hearing, to do my best to make sure students who slipped through the cracks during the pandemic, were given a shot at getting a second chance. Our students in special education were disproportionately affected by the school closures. Now, we owe them our time, and our commitment in getting them back on track. As we move forward with reopening the country, and our schools, we are seeing, and sadly will continue to see the after effects of the pandemic on our most vulnerable students. THIS is the work I am called to do as board director. Read about a few of our country's SIX MILLION students with disabilities, and how the pandemic and school closures impacted them, here.

 

June 16, 2021

Public Schools Denying Diplomas to Students:

Good Policy, or Antiquated Heavy Handedness

By Heath Curry

 

Recently, NPR reported on a student at an Asheboro, N.C. high school who was denied his diploma, while attending graduation ceremonies, for the offense of wearing a Mexican flag over his graduation gown. This most recent case comes in a long line of cases over the past 100 years that highlight the power that public schools have over their students. There are several cases that limit, or even refute a school’s ability to withhold a student’s diploma, such as Shuman v. Cumberland v Board of Directors .113 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 63 (1988) 536 A.2d 490, and Valentine v. Independent School Dist., 191 Iowa 1100, 183 N.W. 434, 436, 437 (1921). A few of these cases have even made it up the appellate court system as high as the Supreme Court, which recently heard a free speech casein January,  involving a student whose speech in question, was expressed off campus, and outside of school hours, yet the school felt they had the jurisdiction to suspend her from the junior varsity cheer team, of which she was a member.

  These cases guide schools as to what is legal regarding withholding diplomas, and disciplining students.  In most cases,  if students have completed their academic requirements as laid out by the district and state board of education, even in the case of last-minute expulsions (Shuman v. Cumberland v Board of Directors .113 Pa. Commonwealth Ct. 63 (1988) 536 A.2d 490), schools cannot deny students their diplomas that they have earned. They can, however, deny students the privilege of walking with their class to receive that diploma, and many schools exercise that discipline freely enough, whether it makes sense, or serves the purpose of discipline, or not.

However, the question is not only one of whether it is legal to withhold diplomas, or dole out discipline, but rather, what purpose that withholding of a diploma or disciplinary action serves. Punishment serves one of two ends, in most Western penal systems and in most households, to be frank: rehabilitation, or deterrence. Punishment must have a logical end. It is neither useful as a means of changing behavior or deterring future behavior if the punishment serves neither of those goals. In the case of withholding a diploma, neither goal can be achieved per se; the school no longer has jurisdiction over the student. So, what is the point at all?

 In the most recent case of Ever Lopez, the Asheboro, N.C. student, as with many others, Lopez had completed his graduation requirements, and was onstage to receive his diploma, when a teacher, without discussion or involvement of the administration, made  last minute decision by herself, to withhold his diploma. This begs the question, what was her problem? Was it the Mexican flag? Was it the dress code rules? What purpose did her actions serve? Mrs. Crooks, as she is identified in the now viral Tweet, has not commented, and it should be noted that Mr. Lopez did receive his diploma in the end, likely after a review of the legality of Mrs. Crook’s actions. 

So, what purpose does this kind of public embarrassment of a student serve? Shaming students in public and denying them their right to their lawfully earned diploma because of a last-minute rule violation? That seems vindictive, and considering the last minute, and very public circumstances regarding the Lopez case, it seems more than a little personal in my opinion.

 In my home school district, I just attended my own son’s graduation. In the graduating class, there easily sat a dozen students wearing cultural regalia over their gowns. There was no outcry from our predominantly Caucasian community, no one made so much as a mention of the attire during the two-hour ceremony. Our school district has a strong equity mission statement, backed up by measurable actions, and public input, and our students are, I am proud to say, quite diverse and involved in that equity mission. We still have work to do, but ours is a good model for how to get started on changing an antiquated public school system that disenfranchises students of color, and students of limited economic means.

As our children age, grow up, and become a part of this, one of the most socially and culturally aware generations in U.S. history, it is time that schools and other public jurisdictions begin to soften what has historically been a rigid and inflexible system of public education.

 Ours is a country of growing cultural complexity, and with that growth, comes an increasing social awareness for historical harms and grievances that have occurred not only here in the U.S., but in countries where our students and their families emigrated from, as well.  As parents, and as a society, we have two choices; we can step up and defend our children’s decision to embrace their diversity and cultural pride, or we can stuff them back into the box of conformity and cultural denial, born from hundreds of years of Colonial puritanism that disproportionately punishes students of color, and students of low economic means.

One student’s pride in their culture is not meant to be another’s shame in theirs. Historical truths, no matter how painful and difficult to accept,  can coexist in the same space as the trauma that that those truths begot. They are opposite sides of the same coin. Truth and trauma can and should coexist together, if we all seek to heal the trauma, and venerate the truth, no matter how painful those truths might be. This lesson does not need to come in the form of shame for the non-ethnic student, but rather in the form of compassion and a truthful awareness of the great harm that the ideology of colonialism had around the world, and here in the U.S., and the truth that that harm exists still today, for many of the descendants of that original sin.

We cannot keep pretending that that other side of the coin does not exist, no matter how uncomfortable it makes some people. Sunshine is always the best disinfectant. Our children are trying to show us that they can be both patriotic Americans, and proud children of immigrants. Why can’t we take a beat to stop and appreciate how beautiful that evolution is, instead of trying to slam the lid back down on it, like some dank, unwelcome entity shrouded in antiquated rules and heavy-handed discipline, from another century that simply does not belong in today’s world?  

 

June 15, 2021

As a parent of a child with special needs, I can relate to this mother's pain and frustration in a way most parents cannot. Special education, or as educators often refer to it "SPED" is underfunded, and more times than not, poorly administered. Many times, educators and administrators are unaware of the responsibilities they have to our children, under the law and too often are unable to deliver, even when they know what is required due to underfunding and under staffing.  This is just a small part of the often overwhelming difficulties families like mine have, in raising a child with disabilities. The struggles NEVER end, there is ALWAYS a hurdle to overcome. The simplest things that most families take for granted, are often a monumental struggle for families like ours. Indeed, many wounds just never fully heal. . .

Laura McKenna, the mother of the boy in this article and writer of the article, sums it up best here:

"I won the lottery with my two boys, but sometimes being a parent to a disabled child can be rather exhausting. With graduation around the corner, I can’t help but reflect on our history in public education, including those tough years when we wrangled with school administrators to properly educate my son. While his teachers were always kind and well-meaning, special education is underfunded, and smart kids with autism can be particularly difficult to integrate into public schools. Some of those wounds from our school struggles never fully healed." -Laura McKenna

Read Laura and Ian's story here.

 

 


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