Today, the ACLU filed a motion to dismiss Community Education Partners (CEP) from a federal class action lawsuit challenging the inadequate education provided to the students attending the Atlanta Independent School System’s (AISS) alternative school, Forrest Hill Academy. In 2008, the ACLU filed the lawsuit against both CEP and AISS in an effort to improve the conditions at Forrest Hill Academy, where students with alleged disciplinary problems were sent.
CEP, a for-profit company, ran Forrest Hill Academy since 2002, but under the pressure of the ACLU’s lawsuit, AISS announced in May that it would not renew its contract with CEP.
Our public education system was envisioned to be just that: public. There are multiple private companies that seek to capitalize off educating and rearing our children, treating them as commodities rather than developing people. The nonrenewal of CEP’s contract marks a victory for children in Atlanta — especially children of color — who were all at risk of being sent to CEP’s alternative school. It will also hopefully thwart other school districts around the country from hiring private companies to run public schools.
The risks for children of prioritizing profit rather than a quality education at school were clearly demonstrated at Forrest Hill Academy.
Students at Forrest Hill Academy found their outsourced, privatized education completely inadequate and even dehumanizing. Upon arrival each day, students were subject to invasive searches, which included girls having their bras “popped” away from their bodies and boys having their shirts picked up to expose their bare stomachs. School employees (not trained security officers) felt inside students’ waistbands and often searched inside students’ hair and mouths. The ACLU also heard of many cases of students being strip-searched for items such as jewelry or cell phones. These bodily searches were conducted without individualized suspicion.
In addition to conducting these unreasonable searches, Forrest Hill Academy routinely suspended students without giving them an opportunity to be heard or without contacting their parents, sometimes for simple incidents such as walking out of a classroom or refusing to sit down. Students were similarly helpless in the referral process to the school, in which many students and their families received no notice or only retroactive notice of the hearings that would determine their school placement. Once at the school, students were provided with an inadequate education, denied a library, regular physical fitness time, and arts education, and taught by under-qualified, often uncertified teachers.
This school, in addition to many other disciplinary alternative schools throughout the country, is firmly a part of the school-to-prison pipeline, a devastating process through which many of our children, most of whom are male and of color, are funneled, by practices and policies in our schools, into the criminal justice system, and often end up incarcerated.
Within a nine-month period, from January 1, 2005, to September 30, 2005, CEP referred 676 children to the Fulton County Juvenile Court. Also consider that one of CEP’s initial investors was Tom Beasly, founder of the Corrections Corporation of America, a private corporation that runs public prisons and detention centers. Just as CEP profits from the increased referral of students to its schools because its contracts rely in part on its enrollment figures, prison developers profit from the increase in referrals from schools such as Forrest Hill Academy to the juvenile and criminal justice systems. This intersection of our criminal justice system and our schools is at the heart of the school-to-prison pipeline.
As evidenced through their practices at Forrest Hill Academy, CEP clearly envisions its students as criminals, not children to educate. Our children deserve more respect and the academic and behavioral support they need. Children who struggle behaviorally, socially, or academically in school are due more services, not less, than those in our mainstream schools. Unfortunately, CEP’s contract only allowed $9,300 per student, whereas the average per-pupil spending in Atlanta is $11,543.
Starting next year, Atlanta Public Schools will be the sole administrator of Atlanta’s alternative school program. The ACLU, and Atlanta, will be watching closely to ensure that the same injustices are not continued and to hold AISS accountable if the practices and policies at the school are not changed. Yet, we believe that Atlanta’s children are better off now that AISS, a government body founded on the responsibility to provide for the public and held publicly accountable when it fails in its duties, is charged with educating our most underserved children.
If you are interested in learning more about alternative schools, read the ACLU’s recent report on alternative schools in Mississippi.
If you are an advocate or lawyer interested in the school-to-prison pipeline, visit Schooltoprison.org.