Houston case highlights debate about racial discipline disparity in schools

ATLANTA — Members from several state civic groups and politicians met in front of the steps of the Capitol on Wednesday to discuss school suspension rates among black students in Georgia.

The event came on the eve of a tribunal appeal on behalf of Houston County High School freshman Amitai Carter before the Houston County Board of Education during a called meeting. Today’s meeting was already scheduled in order for the board to interview its finalists to replace outgoing superintendent David Carpenter.

Representatives from the Georgia State Conference NAACP, the ACLU of Georgia, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline, and several state politicians attended Wednesday’s event. Carter, his mother Leslye Knox, and their attorney, Richard Boykin, were also in attendance.

Carter, 15, who is black and a special education student, was among a group of students watching a fight at Houston County High School on Feb. 9 and recording it on his cell phone, according to Boykin. During the fight, a white assistant principal came up behind Carter, allegedly put him in a chokehold and dragged him to the wall, to which Carter responded with profanity.

As a result, Carter received two semesters of alternative school. School officials dispute the details of the incident, and as a result, have not allowed him to remain in school pending the result of the tribunal appeal, as Knox requested.

“The school board will make a decision tomorrow whether to send Amitai to school to be educated,” said Jennifer Falk, the education chair for the Georgia State Conference NAACP. “They had the authority to make that decision a month ago.”

Falk said the coincidence of Carter’s appeal and the superintendent interviews is significant.

“This should be something they should be asked to respond to,” Falk said.

Boykin said Carter’s case highlights academic inequalities for students across the state.

“We need to change the education system in Georgia,” Boykin said. “It’s slanted against students of color and students with disabilities.”

State NAACP President Edward DuBose followed Boykin by giving statistics about suspension rates among black students in Georgia.

Of 338 students who were suspended in Houston County in 2009, 235 were black, DuBose said, making up 69 percent of suspensions, while only 35 percent of the system’s students are black. Statewide, of 153,279 students suspended in the same year, 66 percent of that number were black. Georgia’s black student population is 38 percent, DuBose said.

In schools in Gwinnett and Cobb counties, as well as in the city of Decatur, black suspension rates also exceed the total black student population.

“We could go on and on,” he said. “If we don’t take a stand now, students will be heading down the wrong road.”

DuBose said there are plans in the works to file a civil rights complaint in regard to Carter’s case.

A zero-tolerance approach to minor disciplinary incidences has contributed to the “school to prison pipeline,” said Chara Fisher Jackson, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia. As a result, more students end up in alternative schools, which makes them about three to five times more likely to become dropouts, she said.

Knox’s main concern is making the school system accountable for its decisions in her son’s case.

Though actively involved in Carter’s disciplinary process following the incident, Knox said she felt she wouldn’t be able to properly help him without legal counsel. Now, she hopes her fight will help other families who face similar circumstances.

“If you don’t understand the rules, how can you represent your child?” said Knox, a former paraprofessional for Houston County schools. “I’m not doing this for me and Amitai, I’m doing this for other students and parents.”

Today’s board of education meeting will be held at 1 p.m. in Perry. The meeting will primarily be held in executive session, meaning the Carter tribunal and the superintendent interviews — the finalists are Perry High School principal Darryl Albritton and Assistant Superintendent for School Operations Robin Hines — will not be open to the public. The board plans to announce its choice for superintendent during its regular meeting Tuesday.

To contact writer Andrea Castillo, call 256-9751.