Security and Safety in New Orleans Public Schools
New Orleans students are supposed to be learning in one of the most advanced, innovative educational environments in the country. When it comes to school safety and security, however, many New Orleans schools employ ineffective discipline practices that were discredited by education policy researchers decades ago. School staff react to minor rule violations by forcibly handcuffing children to furniture, brutally slamming them, banishing them from their schools and cutting short their education. Far from keeping New Orleans schools safe, these policies actually reinforce a culture of violence and disengagement from schools and communities.
These practices have a devastating effect on New Orleans students. In fact, a Department of Justice study found that when children experience physically abusive punishment, they are five times more likely to live with post-traumatic stress disorder for the rest of their lifetimes. 3 Further, school reform efforts have failed to address the alarming number of New Orleans public school students who are removed from the classroom as punishment for minor rule violations. An over-reliance on these disciplinary methods can lead to the loss of valuable learning time, while contributing significantly to dropout rates. The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates that Louisiana loses more than $6.9 billion annually in wages as a result of policies that push students out of school before graduation.4
- In the 2007-08 school year, approximately 28.8% of Recovery School District (RSD) students (3,537) were suspended out of school.5 The suspension rate in schools operated by the RSD is more than twice the state average and more than four times the national rate.6
- In the 2008-09 school year, there were a total of 6,702 out-of-school suspensions issued in RSD-run schools with a total student population of 12,871.7 This breaks down to an average of 186 out-of-school suspensions each week from just 33 RSD public schools.8
- Suspensions are often for minor misbehavior, such as dress code problems or being tardy to class or school.9
- In RSD schools, 98% of students are African American and 79% of students are lowincome. RSD students are suspended at a rate that is more than three times the rate of suspension in neighboring, mostly white, affluent school districts.10
- In St. Tammany Parish, where only 18.5% of students are African American and 42.5% are low-income, only 8% of students were suspended.
- In St. Charles Parish, where only 36.4% of students are African American and 45.1% are low-income, only 4.1% of students were suspended from school.11
While these statistics illustrate the magnitude of New Orleans’ school discipline crisis, schools fail to track data regarding the number of students who are subject to abusive security practices such as handcuffing, shackling and physical assaults at the hands of untrained security officers. The experiences of students profiled in this report suggest that these abuses are widespread. In contrast, other profiles of students who have participated in restorative justice circles — where schools work to solve disputes as opposed to removing children from their schools — demonstrate the benefit of true innovations. These innovations include implementing research-based discipline practices, restorative justice and positive behavior interventions and supports.
- In the 2007-08 school year, the expulsion rate in the RSD was almost twice the statewide rate, and 10 times the national rate.12
- In the same school year, 808 students were recommended for expulsion by school principals and 323 were upheld. Students were removed from their school pending an expulsion hearing, sometimes missing days, weeks or even months of school before their hearing is held.13
- In the 2008-09 school year, 1,016 students were recommended for expulsion in the RSD and 396 expulsions were upheld.14
John, 8th grade student:
One day, at my old school, I gave candy to another student and the security guard saw me, and told me real grumpy that I was going to be suspended. She snatched my book sack off me and tried to take me to the principal’s office. I was confused and asked why. I just asked for an explanation. But she said, “I’m going to put handcuffs on you if you refuse.”
The security guard grabbed me and tried to handcuff me. I got scared and ran away. I didn’t know what was going on, what was going to happen to me. I was so nervous. [Because] my hands are small, I slipped out of the handcuffs. I had bruises on my hands because I slipped them off when they were on tight. I ran into the back of the school and hid. The other security guard came and they were grabbing me. They scratched my neck and ripped my jacket down the middle. It was hard for my granny to buy me that jacket.
It really broke my heart when she told me she was going to put handcuffs on me. Knowing how my dad has been in and out of jail his whole life and always had handcuffs on … I promised myself it would never happen to me. I’m a kid, and kids shouldn’t have handcuffs on them. It disgusts me putting kids in handcuffs and jail.
Dana Alexander, 17 years old:
I’ve been going to school for 11 years and oh, Lord, did I used to get suspended a lot! I’ve been suspended for so many things: cursing, fighting and disrespecting teachers. Suspensions are so bad for students because you miss school, you miss your education and it’s impossible to catch up. Once you get behind you may as well give up. I haven’t given up because my school started doing [restorative justice] circles. Things changed for me. I haven’t been suspended for a long time.
Circles are like this: You sit around and talk about the root of the problems, the reasons why you do things that could get you suspended. You feel nervous, really nervous. One of the important rules is that you have to listen respectfully when the others are talking. You can’t talk when someone is telling their side of the story. When you listen, you find out sometimes people aren’t who you thought they were. So many times when you find out who people really are, you can avoid a fight or a conflict.
I had a circle with all of my teachers. I was having a really hard time with my behavior, with following the rules. The way the teachers talked to me set me off. We had a circle and I talked to them. I told them about where I come from, why things bother me. I told them who I was. My teachers learned about me and about how they can help me. In the end we signed a contract. I agreed to follow the rules. They agreed to talk to me respectfully. Together we developed a plan and it really worked.
People need to know these circles work. They help a lot of students, make us safer and make the school a better place. And fewer students get suspended. Circles can help a lot of the problems in schools and I hope every school starts to use them.
Steven*, 6th grade student:
This boy was intimidating me; he was always messing with me. One day he pushed me, then we got in a fight. Next thing you know, the security guards came and one hit me on the head with the billy club. I started running since I was scared. Another one took me by the arms and slammed me into the ground. It hurt my head real bad. The teacher put his knee in my back while I was on the ground, put handcuffs on me and then slammed me into the wall. Later, I went home with bruises, I had dirt on my face from the cement and my shirt was ripped. There were all kinds of teachers on the yard but they didn’t help. They just passed us right up. They left me in handcuffs for a long time — more than an hour. They were real tight. It hurt.
Another time, I went to class after I just got off suspension. My teacher said I wasn’t supposed to be in class and just told me to get out of her class and go to the principal’s office. The principal said he was sick of seeing my face and told me to go to [in-school suspension]. I said that wasn’t fair, so I wasn’t going. He told me either go to ISS or get handcuffed. Then he had the security guard handcuff me to the heater in the office. I sat there for like three or more hours ‘til the end of the day.
One teacher took my side and told the office they shouldn’t do that to me. No one listened to her. She even called my momma to come get me. My momma got real upset but they told her they were allowed to do that anytime they wanted. They just kept handcuffing me. Even other students got handcuffed. One kid was in special ed and he would holler and cry when they handcuffed him.
Kendall*, 9th grade student:
I like my school but we have a few problems — like getting to class late when there’s traffic in the hallway. You only got four minutes to get to the next class, even though it’s on the other side of school. So, you get to class late even if you rush.
If you’re tardy, you get detention. Five detentions add up to a suspension. Five more tardies, you get another suspension. If you get five more tardies, you get another suspension and you’re up for expulsion, just like that.
Then you get to where I’m at now — expelled from school in the 9th grade. Being one minute late to any of your classes 15 times gets you expelled. Now I’m at home. There’s nothing to learn. … I was used to waking up around 7 a.m. for school. Now I wake up at 7 a.m. with nothing to do. I can’t even go outside until after 4 p.m. because I’ll get arrested for truancy. Now I stay home, not learning. I really want to go back to school so I can go to college. I’m worried about how my life is going to end up. I don’t want to end up learning nothing on the street.
Virginia*, Mother of 9th grade student:
One day school hours were closed but they had band practice that day. My son thought he could go to the school early before band practice and wait in the library. My son went early, waited in the library and used the school computer until band practice started. He received a five-day suspension for this! They charged him with trespassing and criminal damage, even though there was no damage and he was on the grounds of his own school. Just because he went to band practice early!
I became so angry. I asked the school why. The principal said my son could have harmed the computer. Eventually they agreed to remove the criminal damage charge but they kept the trespassing charge and gave him a five-day suspension. It was a few incidents like this and now my son is expelled from school for the remainder of the year.
To see my son out of school has affected me and my family greatly. My son is low-spirited ever since he was expelled from school. He’s been sitting out of school for weeks. Before all this, he was a happy-go-lucky kid, laughing and talking. He loves to draw, but since he got expelled, he told me he doesn’t feel like drawing anymore.
Romalice May, 12th grade student:
I got in trouble because I was walking the hall when I was supposed to be in the cafeteria at lunch. They called me to the office and said I was going to be suspended for five days. I didn’t even know what I did wrong. They said it was for walking in the hallway during lunch. … I told the school “if you suspend me, I’m going to fail my classes.” But then they told me about the alternative: The circle that lets you and your teacher reach an alternative agreement that’s not a suspension. With the circles, you don’t have to get suspended. You can have second chances.
In the circle, they asked the teacher what she would want instead of suspension. The teacher explained that she had all this pressure, with people not coming to work. She felt frustrated and overwhelmed. She said she just wished that the students would give her a break. The teacher said I could come during the lunch hours and clean the ISS room instead of suspension. I said, “Cool, that’s a winner.” That circle stuff really works!
I never went back to the office and never got in trouble again. That’s the best thing that could’ve happened. If I had been suspended, I would have had to do the 11th grade all over again.
*Not their real name
3 Kilpatrick DG, Saunders BE, Smith DW. Youth Victimization: National Institute of Justice: Research in Brief, April 2003.
Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, at 10-11. Available at www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/194972.pdf.
4 Alliance for Excellent Education. The High Cost of Highschool Dropouts: What the Nation Pays for Inadequate Highschools, 4 (2007), available at www.all4ed.org/files/HighCost.pdf.
5 See Elizabeth Sullivan and Damekia Morgan, Pushed Out: Harsh Discipline in Louisiana Schools Denies the Right to Education, National Econ. and Social Rights Initiative and Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, 2010, at iii (citing Louisiana State Department of Education, District Composite Report 2007-2008.) (Based on analysis of student participation school level data available for download in Excel file complied for the 33 RSD direct-run, non-charter schools in the 2007-2008 school year, www.doe.state.la.us/lde/pair/1613.aspx.) Suspension rates are based on total enrollment in schools reported as of February 2008.
6 Id. (Calculations based on data obtained from the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights Data Collection, 2006, available at ocrdata.ed.gov).
7 Id., at iii (Data obtained from the Recovery School District, RSD District-Run Schools, 2008-2009).
8 Id. (Calculation based on a school year of 36 weeks).
9 Id. (Data obtained from the Recovery School District, Recommended Expulsions/Upheld Expulsions/Transferred Expulsions, 2007-2008).
10 Id. at 17.
13 Id. at iii-iv.
14 Id. at iv.