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Fighting for the Rights of School Kids Across the Country

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March 18, 2008

Today, our Racial Justice Program filed a class-action lawsuit on behalf of students enrolled in public schools in Palm Beach, Fla. Our lawsuit charges that the school district, by failing to graduate a third or more of its high school seniors, is violating students’ rights to a high quality education under the state’s constitution:

The education of children is a fundamental value of the people of the State of Florida. It is, therefore, a paramount duty of the state to make adequate provision for the education of all children residing within its borders. Adequate provision shall be made by law for a uniform, efficient, safe, secure, and high quality system of free public schools that allows students to obtain a high quality education and for the establishment, maintenance, and operation of institutions of higher learning and other public education programs that the needs of the people may require.

We believe the school board is not meeting the “uniform” and “high quality” requirements of this constitutional mandate. Palm Beach County’s dismal graduation rate is 56.1 percent. A 2004 study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project and the Urban Institute found Maryland’s Baltimore and Montgomery counties, and Virginia’s Fairfax County – places with racial and socio-economic demographics very similar to those of Palm Beach – graduation rates were slightly above 80 percent.

Our lawsuit doesn’t seek additional funding or any specific remedies, only that the school district improve its graduation rates without pushing students out of the system. We’re also asking for the establishment of a uniform and reliable graduation rate calculation that accurately accounts for every student enrolled in Palm Beach County’s high schools. Currently, multiple, inconsistent measures that are inaccurate and inflated are being used to calculate graduation rates.

In other education news, last week the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project filed another class-action suit on behalf of eight Atlanta students against the Atlanta Independent School System (AISS) and Community Education Partners (CEP) for violating students’ state and federal constitutional rights. CEP is a for-profit corporation paid nearly $7 million a year by the city to run its alternative school for students with behavioral problems, which is one of the most dangerous and lowest performing schools in Georgia.

In addition to pathetic performance statistics – less than 23 percent of students at the school met or exceeded curriculum standards, compared to two nearby alternative schools where over 50 percent of students did – AISS-CEP is barely recognizable as a school: Students aren’t allowed to take textbooks home. There’s no cafeteria, gym, or library. Kids are subjected to full body pat-down searches that include even the soles of their feet, every day, and all students – both boys and girls – are forced to lift their shirts up to their necks in front of the search team. (A horrifying, invasive experience for any teenager, not to mention a violation of their Fourth Amendment rights.) In addition, watches, jewelry, purses, combs, brushes, keys, money in excess of five dollars, and tampons are all considered contraband and are strictly prohibited. (Since when are tampons considered dangerous? Even the TSA doesn’t confiscate tampons…)

And what do these kids get in return for this kind of treatment? Instruction from teachers who are barely qualified to teach: In 2006-2007, teachers at AISS-CEP averaged only 0.94 years of experience compared to teachers in two other local alternative schools, who averaged 19.07 years and 10.58 years each. But it probably doesn’t matter because AISS-CEP teachers have no functional curriculum with which to teach students, and make the kids spend most of the day filling out worksheets and crossword puzzles, which the teachers don’t bother to mark. Bottom line? Not a single student at AISS-CEP made it to senior year in 2006.

To learn more about the Atlanta case, check out NPR’s interview with ACLU attorney Emily Chiang and our great client Patti Welch for Tell Me More.

We’re hoping that these two lawsuits will draw attention to the school-to-prison-pipeline problem, where children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. This isn’t a problem that just affects the kids in Palm Beach and Atlanta: it’s a systemic problem throughout America’s education system. High school dropouts are far more likely than graduates to be unemployed, in prison and living in poverty. A recent independent study reported last week in the Washington Post showed that high school dropouts in the District of Columbia stand to lose $615 million in lifetime earnings compared to graduates. The study also found that the city would save more than $20 million in health care costs if D.C.’s high school dropouts graduated.

We owe it to our kids-they are our future, as the song says-to ensure they receive the best education we can possibly provide.

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