Responding to Hate

As a civil rights attorney, I have spent over 3 decades using the tools of my trade to respond to hate that has been unleashed upon my clients. However, until recently, society has generally supported victims of hate and vilified the hate mongers. Sadly, the campaign and subsequent election of our president-elect has resulted in something I had hoped I would never see in my lifetime-the legitimization of hate.

Even a casual news observer cannot help but notice the daily occurrences of swastika graffiti, beatings and even killings of Muslims, and shaming of schoolchildren of color. On the Saturday night before this past Halloween, I went to see friends who perform in a local band at a nearby neighborhood club. Many were dressed up in a wide variety of costumes. Before the show, a complete stranger sitting next to me wearing a long Pinocchio nose, apparently thought it was completely ok to tell me a vile anti-semitic joke. Whether he knew I was Jewish does not matter. What was most disturbing was that he felt completely free to spew his hate in public to a total stranger.

Though I consider myself a strong advocate, I was so stunned when that stranger shared his anti-semitism with me that I failed to respond. I have been thinking about this incident ever since to try to understand my failure to respond. Beyond just being in shock, I also did not want to cause a scene at an otherwise festive public affair. But after I posted this incident on Facebook and a number of friends said they would have responded strongly, I realized 2 important things:

  • Never judge how someone responds to a crisis because you never know how you will respond if confronted with the very same crisis; and
  • It is often easier to respond on behalf of someone else than to actually defend yourself.

Sadly, once the election was over, the president-elect moved quickly to make sure the world understood that he would continue to legitimize hate when he appointed a purveyor of hateful prejudice, Steve Bannon, as his Chief Strategist, a position in the White House that has never previously existed. For those who are unaware, Bannon was the editor of Breitbart.com before joining the president-elect’s campaign. In that capacity, he regularly denigrated Jews, Muslims, homosexuals, people of color and women, and he did so in vile and hateful language. Until recently, such a man would not be accepted in civil society, but since the president-elect has normalized hate and prejudice, he has now welcomed it, through Bannon’s appointment, to the highest level of his White House.

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Fortunately, yesterday, I was given a chance to respond belatedly to the anti-semitism I experienced, when a local TV news reporter called me in my role as President of my synagogue, Shaarei Shamayim, to ask if I would be willing to publicly respond to my Congressman Mark Pocan’s call that the president-elect withdraw Bannon’s appointment. I gladly agreed to do so and you can watch my interview at this link.

During this interview, I was able to convey the following in response to Bannon’s appointment and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan’s acceptance of it:

“Our president-elect has chosen to legitimize hate within his own administration. We had a big Bat Mitzvah this past weekend (and) people are worried. They’re very worried. He has an opportunity – Speaker Ryan – to say directly to the President of the United States – hate does not belong in the White House. I understand that he was just renominated as Speaker of the House, but that’s not leadership to duck a question like that.”

This TV news story not only provide me with the opportunity to delegitimize hate, but as the story has been shared widely, local leaders have approached me to work with them to strategize on an organized local response. I look forward to doing so in the days and weeks to come. Unfortunately, given the results of our recent election, this will just be the first of many battles which good people simply cannot shy away from. The timing and manner of each of our responses to hate will vary, but respond we must.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

 

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Charter School Expansion: Whither Accountability?

Wisconsin’s powerful Joint Finance Committee recently approved a dramatic change to Wisconsin’s charter school authorization law. This change would expand so-called independent charter schools to over 140 new school districts. More troubling is that the new charter school authorizers would include the University of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee and Waukesha County Executives, tribal colleges and Gateway Technical Colleges, adding to the already confusing maze of Wisconsin school choices.

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Sen. Alberta Darling acknowledged that this provision did not include any oversight for these new charter schools. Perhaps she and her colleagues who passed this provision failed to understand that they cannot change federal law which contains quite a few obligations for charter schools.

As I wrote about a year ago, charter schools are public schools and they must comply with federal civil rights laws. In fact, perhaps due to the confusion wrought by charter expansion, the U.S. Department of Education issued a guidance letter last year that made perfectly clear that charter schools are public schools subject to all federal civil rights laws.

In summary, that letter confirms that:

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin;
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibiting discrimination based on sex); and
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (prohibiting discrimination based on disability)

all apply to all operations of charter schools.

including recruiting, admissions, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), disciplinary measures (including suspensions and expulsions), athletics and other nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology.

Specifically,

  • Charter schools may not discriminate in admissions, meaning:

Charter schools must ensure that language-minority parents who are not proficient in English receive meaningful access to the same admissions information and other school-related information provided to English-proficient parents in a manner and form they can understand, such as by providing free interpreter and/or translation services. Also, communications with parents with disabilities must be as effective as communications with other parents. Appropriate auxiliary aids and services (such as Braille materials or a sign language interpreter) must be made available whenever they are necessary to ensure equally effective communication with parents with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities.

Of course, this means that charter schools may not have admissions criteria which discriminate on their face. But, in addition,

a charter school may not use admissions criteria that have the effect of excluding students on the basis of race, color, or national origin from the school without proper justification. Charter schools also may not categorically deny admission to students on the basis of disability.

  • Regarding children with disabilities, OCR makes clear that,

every student with a disability enrolled in a public school, including a public charter school, must be provided a free appropriate public education–that is, regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet his or her individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met. Evaluation and placement procedures are among the requirements that must be followed if a student needs, or is believed to need, special education or related services due to a disability. Charter schools may not ask or require students or parents to waive their right to a free appropriate public education in order to attend the charter school. Additionally, charter schools must provide nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities in such a manner that students with disabilities are given an equal opportunity to participate in these services and activities.

  • For English Language Learners,

charter schools must take “affirmative steps” to help English-language learners overcome language barriers so that they can participate meaningfully in their schools’ educational programs. A charter school must timely identify language-minority students who have limited proficiency in reading, writing, speaking, or understanding English, and must provide those students with an effective language instruction educational program that also affords meaningful access to the school’s academic content.

Together with the U.S. Department of Justice, as I have written previously, the U.S. Department of Education has also clarified that, like all other public schools, charter schools must also administer discipline in a nondiscriminatory manner, which is an important component in stemming the tide of the schools to prison pipeline.

If this highly problematic provision passes the full Wisconsin legislature and is signed into law by Governor Walker, it will be interesting to see how all of these new charter entities will implement state and federal special education law, which requires them to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE), and includes many protections to prevent discriminatory disciplinary exclusion of children with disabilities. Each one of these new chartering entities will need to be sure that it assigns a local education agency representative to each Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting who has the knowledge of all the charter school’s resources and the authority to commit them to students with disabilities whose IEPs require such services.

Of course, in order to be effective, civil rights laws must be enforced. Concerned parents and advocates can contact OCR at (800) 421-3481 & ocr@ed.gov, since OCR is clearly inviting complaints if charter schools violate any civil rights laws. Contact information and complaint forms can be found here. It will be up to parents and advocates to make sure that OCR honors its commitment to enforce the law if violations occur.

Parents who believe charter schools have violated state or federal special education law may file complaints with the state education agency. In Wisconsin, you can find information about how to file a complaint and a sample form here.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Threading the Systems Change Needle

Lost in the after midnight budget bombshell dropped by the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee on our public education system earlier this week, was a small, but important civil rights victory for children with disabilities and their parents. No, it certainly was not the horrific stealth passage of a horrible Special Needs Voucher system that promises to rob children with disabilities of their hard won civil right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE), which parents of children with disabilities and their allies have successfully fought for the past 4 years.

Rather, with one small amendment, the Wisconsin Open Enrollment program, which allows students to transfer to other public school districts that may better suit their needs, moved one step closer to ending its statutorily sanctioned discrimination against children with disabilities. Remarkably, ever since this program began in the 1998-99 school year, the law permitted the rejection of children with disabilities who were considered an “undue financial burden.” 

The Open Enrollment program has been very popular all over the state. In its first year, state data shows that fewer than 2,500 students transferred to new school districts under this program. But, 15 years later, in 2013-14, nearly 50,000 students availed themselves of this flexible approach to public education.

Yet, due to the outright discrimination against children with disabilities whom school districts deem an undue financial burden, each year thousands of such children cannot use open enrollment to attend another school district like their non-disabled peers. I have fought this discriminatory law on behalf of dozens of children for nearly 20 years. Although, I have successfully pushed back on the law in court, despite numerous requests, until now, I have not been able to convince the legislature to rid Wisconsin of this statutory discrimination.

The opportunity to do so arose out of my role as a board member for the Autism Society of South Central Wisconsin. Shortly after joining the board, I worked with advocates from the Autism Society of Wisconsin (ASW) and the Autism Society of Southeastern Wisconsin to develop an advocacy agenda. We joined forces with many other disability advocates to help preserve Wisconsin’s self-directed long term care program, IRIS, from Gov.Walker’s budget chopping block. But, we also wanted to make progress for children in our schools in a very challenging legislative environment. I suggested that there might be an opportunity to thread the systems change needle by approaching Sen. Luther Olsen, the Senate Education Committee Chair, who serves as the key Senate Education member on the Joint Finance Committee to see if we could get him to sponsor a budget amendment to end the “undue financial burden” Open Enrollment discrimination against children with disabilities.

So, I made an appointment for the ASW Executive Director, Kirsten Cooper, and I to meet with Sen. Olsen. It was a short, but productive meeting. Almost immediately, he agreed to insert a budget amendment that would end nearly 20 years of state sanctioned discrimination. We thanked him, and periodically checked in with Sen. Olsen’s staff to make sure he would stay true to his word. Two nights ago, buried in the bombshell of voucher expansion and charter school takeovers, Sen. Olsen kept his promise, and the amendment to end nearly 20 years of discrimination was passed by the Joint Finance Committee. We have thanked him and will continue to monitor this small, but important piece of progress as the budget process continues to work its way through the legislature.

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In 30 years of systems change advocacy, I have learned that success is often achieved in small but important ways. Knowing how to thread the systems change advocacy needle helps advocates identify the time, place and method for achieving such victories.

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For more information on how Jeff Spitzer-Resnick can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact him by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

US Dept. of Education Addresses Disparities in Education Resources

In a landmark proclamation today, the U.S. Department of Education’s (USDOE) Office of Civil Rights (OCR) addressed states, school districts and all schools which receive federal funds to draw attention to disparities in access to educational resources.  This “Dear Colleague” letter makes clear that:

Chronic and widespread racial disparities in access to rigorous courses, academic programs, and extracurricular activities; stable workforces of effective teachers, leaders, and support staff; safe and appropriate school buildings and facilities; and modern technology and high-quality instructional materials further hinder the education of students of color today.

The letter addresses access to advanced courses and programs by pointing out that:

  • almost one in five black high school students attend a high school that does not offer Advanced Placement (AP) courses, a higher proportion than any other racial group;
  • In the 2011-12 school year, English language learners represented five percent of high school students, but only two percent of the students enrolled in an AP course;
  • of the high schools serving the most black and Latino students in the 2011-12 school year, only 74 percent offered Algebra II and only 66 percent offered chemistry as compared to  schools serving the fewest black and Latino students, where 83 percent offered Algebra II courses and 78 percent offered chemistry;
  • while black and Latino students represented 16 percent and 21 percent, respectively, of high school enrollment in 2011-12, they were only 8 percent and 12 percent, respectively, of the students enrolled in calculus.
  • Schools serving the most black and Latino students are 1.5 times more likely to employ teachers who are newest to the profession as compared to schools serving the fewest of those students;
  • Schools with the most students of color are more likely to have temporary, portable buildings and permanent buildings with poorer building conditions, including poorly maintained exterior features such as lighting and walls;
  • Intradistrict and interdistrict funding disparities often mirror differences in the racial and socioeconomic demographics of schools, particularly when adjusted to take into consideration regional wage variations and extra costs often associated with educating low-income children, English language learners, and students with disabilities. These disparities are often a result of funding systems that allocate less State and local funds to high-poverty schools that frequently have more students of color, which can often be traced to a reliance on property tax revenue for school funding; and
  • teachers in high schools serving the highest percentage of black and Latino students during the 2011-12 school year were paid on average $1,913 less per year than their colleagues in other schools within the same district that serve the lowest percentage of black and Latino students.

So, how will OCR analyze discrimination complaints based on disparate allocation of resources?

First, it will examine if there is intentional discrimination, by asking the following questions:

1) Did the school district treat a student, or group of students, differently with respect to providing access to educational resources as compared to another similarly situated student, or group of students, of a different race, color, or national origin?

2) Can the school district articulate a legitimate, nondiscriminatory, educational reason for the different treatment? If not, OCR could find that the district has intentionally discriminated on the basis of race. If yes, then

3) Is the allegedly nondiscriminatory reason a pretext for discrimination? If so, OCR would find the district has intentionally discriminated on the basis of race.

However, many facially neutral policies have a discriminatory disparate impact.  In such cases, OCR will apply the following analysis:

1) Does the school district have a facially neutral policy or practice that produces an adverse impact on students of a particular race, color, or national origin when compared to other students?

2) Can the school district demonstrate that the policy or practice is necessary to meet an important educational goal? In conducting the second step of this inquiry OCR will consider both the importance of the educational goal and the tightness of the fit between the goal and the policy or practice employed to achieve it. If the policy or practice is not necessary to serve an important educational goal, OCR would find that the school district has engaged in discrimination. If the policy or practice is necessary to serve an important educational goal, then OCR would ask

3) Are there comparably effective alternative policies or practices that would meet the school district’s stated educational goal with less of a discriminatory effect on the disproportionately affected racial group; or, is the identified justification a pretext for discrimination? If the answer to either question is yes, then OCR would find that the school district had engaged in discrimination. If no, then OCR would likely not find sufficient evidence to determine that the school district had engaged in discrimination.

One key question is how OCR will respond to a claim of lack of funds. USDOE’s response is clear:

Lack of funds does not preclude the duty to act under Title VI. OCR may consider how States, districts, and schools distribute whatever funds and resources are available, as well as how they act to provide additional or sufficient funds, to ensure equal educational opportunities.

Equal educational opportunity requires that all students, regardless of race, color, or national origin, have comparable access to the diverse range of courses, programs, and extracurricular activities offered in our Nation’s schools.

This letter even addresses extracurricular activities by stating that:

Extracurricular activities, especially those that have been shown to support college and career readiness and high academic rigor, must be offered on a nondiscriminatory basis.

Regarding technology, USDOE makes clear that:

OCR evaluates whether all students, regardless of race, have comparable access to the technological tools given to teachers and students, along with how those tools are supported and implemented.

USDOE strongly urges school districts to engage in a self-assessment to determine if these issues need to be addressed at the local level.  However, if OCR finds resource discrimination in schools, it will engage in the following possible remedies as applied to coursework, staffing, leadership, instructional materials, school facilities and technology.

  • Remedies must effectively end the discrimination and eliminate its effects.
  • Remedies must be implemented in a timeframe that is prompt and appropriate given the nature and difficulty of the corrective actions at issue.
  • OCR encourages school districts to work cooperatively with leaders, teachers, and support staff (and their unions and associations).

Education advocates have long hoped for such a strong declaration from the USDOE.  Now, they must push these issues at the state and local level and file complaints at the federal level if educational resource disparities persist. Time will tell if OCR will effectively remedy these longstanding problems, but today’s declaration is a very good start.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive, effective systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Soul has no Color

Last night, my wife & I had the privilege of watching the incomparable Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, 72 years strong, perform an incredible concert.  Her opening act was comedian Jonathan Slocumb, whose job was to pump up the crowd for Aretha.  In honoring the Queen of Soul, Slocumb reminded the Wisconsin State Fair crowd, which came from all walks of life, as depicted here, that Soul has no Color.” 

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The comedian’s profound statement, which he based on one’s soul being internal, and therefore not based on skin color, reminded me of my 9th grade Social Studies teacher, who happened to be an African-American teacher in a high school filled with mostly Jewish students.  When it came time for her to teach the section on race, she started by saying that she hated teaching that topic and though she would follow the curriculum by teaching us about the then current definitions of Caucasoid, Negroid, & Mongoloid so-called “races,” she wanted us to understand that she believed there was only one race: the human race.  For many years after that profound and unforgettable lesson, whenever I had to fill out forms to identify my race, I checked the “other” box and filled in the blank, “human.”

Needless to say, race and racism are complex issues, often encumbered by ever shifting definitions of race.  Prior to Loving v. Virginia, when the Supreme Court struck down anti-interracial marriage laws in 1967, as unconstitutional, many states defined race (particularly African-Americans) by percentage and these definitions varied from state to state.  Indeed, the landmark case of Plessy v. Ferguson, in which the Supreme Court established the concept of “separate but equal,” was based on Louisiana’s definition of a “black” man which included Homer Plessy who was classified as an “octoroon” since his ancestry was 1/8 black, and therefore he was forbidden to sit in the “whites-only” section of the train.

More recently, one must wonder why there was so little outrage when the data was recently released revealing that the life span gap between whites and blacks, while narrowing nationwide, increased significantly in Wisconsin.  As the City of Milwaukee’s Medical Director aptly put it,

What you have here in Wisconsin is an environment which is not healthy for children of color, and this is the main driver of differences in life expectancy.

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Thus, while there are certainly racial disparities all over the place, many of which are abhorrent, and must be addressed through systems change, I yearn for the day when we can look beyond the color as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it so well, 

I have a dream that my four little children will live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

Because, soul has no color.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish progressive systems change, contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his web site: Systems Change Consulting.

Read my Lips: Charter Schools are Public Schools & Must Comply with Civil Rights Laws

The battle lines have been drawn in the education reform movement.  There are those who would privatize as much of our public education through vouchers as possible, and they are strongly opposed by those who defend public education at all costs.  As is often the case, when the vitriol gets louder, confusion reigns, and in education reform, confusion has reigned supreme in the charter school arena.

Many who oppose school privatization oppose charter schools, despite their potential for innovation,  because they believe that charter schools are just another vehicle for privatizing and therefore destroying public schools.  Fortunately, the US Department of Education (USDOE), has made perfectly clear that charter schools are public schools subject to all federal civil rights laws.  In a guidance letter issued by the USDOE’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR) on May 14, 2014, it was made abundantly clear that,

These laws extend to all operations of a charter school, including recruiting, admissions, academics, educational services and testing, school climate (including prevention of harassment), disciplinary measures (including suspensions and expulsions), athletics and other nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities, and accessible buildings and technology.

The guidance letter specifies 4 key federal laws that apply to charter schools:

  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin;
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 (prohibiting discrimination based on sex); and
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (prohibiting discrimination based on disability).

The OCR letter states that a separate guidance letter will be issued in collaboration with the USDOE’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services (OSERS) to address charter schools’ obligations to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Eduction Act (IDEA).

Some key provisions of the new guidance letter are:

  • Charter schools may not discriminate in admissions.  This includes:

Charter schools must ensure that language-minority parents who are not proficient in English receive meaningful access to the same admissions information and other school-related information provided to English-proficient parents in a manner and form they can understand, such as by providing free interpreter and/or translation services.Also, communications with parents with disabilities must be as effective as communications with other parents. Appropriate auxiliary aids and services (such as Braille materials or a sign language interpreter) must be made available whenever they are necessary to ensure equally effective communication with parents with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities.

Of course, this means that charter schools may not have admissions criteria which discriminate on their face.  But, in addition,

a charter school may not use admissions criteria that have the effect of excluding students on the basis of race, color, or national origin from the school without proper justification. Charter schools also may not categorically deny admission to students on the basis of disability.

  • Regarding children with disabilities, OCR makes clear that,

every student with a disability enrolled in a public school, including a public charter school, must be provided a free appropriate public education–that is, regular or special education and related aids and services that are designed to meet his or her individual educational needs as adequately as the needs of students without disabilities are met. Evaluation and placement procedures are among the requirements that must be followed if a student needs, or is believed to need, special education or related services due to a disability. Charter schools may not ask or require students or parents to waive their right to a free appropriate public education in order to attend the charter school. Additionally, charter schools must provide nonacademic and extracurricular services and activities in such a manner that students with disabilities are given an equal opportunity to participate in these services and activities.

  • For English Language Learners,

charter schools must take “affirmative steps” to help English-language learners overcome language barriers so that they can participate meaningfully in their schools’ educational programs. (emphasis supplied) A charter school must timely identify language-minority students who have limited proficiency in reading, writing, speaking, or understanding English, and must provide those students with an effective language instruction educational program that also affords meaningful access to the school’s academic content. Federal civil rights laws do not, however, require any school, including a charter school, to adopt or implement any particular educational model or program of instruction for English-language learners; schools have substantial flexibility to determine how they will satisfy their legal obligations to meet these students’ needs.

The latest guidance on charter schools also affirms that the prior guidance issued by the USDOE jointly with the US Dept. of Justice on discriminatory school discipline also applies to charter schools.  As I wrote about previously, this guidance is an important step in stopping the schools to prison pipeline.

Of course, laws are only as good as their enforcement, so it is good that OCR ends its guidance by providing a link to its contact information and complaint form.  It also provides its toll free number and e-mail address: (800) 421-3481 & ocr@ed.gov.  OCR is clearly inviting complaints if charter schools violate the law.  It will be up to advocates to make sure that OCR honors its commitment to enforce the law if violations occur.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change contact Jeff Spitzer-Resnick by visiting his website: Systems Change Consulting.

Moving from Worst to First: Creating the Madison Model

This past fall, the Wisconsin Council on Children & Families released its Race to Equity report on the state of racial disparities in Dane County, Wisconsin.  The data was alarming, including:

  • A Black unemployment rate of 25%–5 times higher than the 5% unemployment rate for non-Hispanic Whites: worse than the Wisconsin ratio of 23:7%; and far worse than the national ratio of 18:8%;
  • An even more shocking poverty disparity with 75% of Dane County Black children living in poverty compared to 5% of Non-Hispanic White children: once again far worse than the Wisconsin disparity of 49:12%; and the national disparity of 39:14%.

Academically, the disproportional disparities persist in Dane County:

  • 70% of Black students did not take the ACT in 2011, compared to 36% of non-Hispanic Whites, contrasted with the state wide non-participation rate of 50:41%;
  • 50% of Black students in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) did not graduate in 4 years in 2011, compared to 16% of Non-Hispanic Whites, contrasted with a 36:9% ratio statewide.

Arrest rates are also alarming:

  • Juvenile arrest rates in 2010 were a shocking 46.9% of Black juveniles arrested in Dane County, while only 7.7% of White juveniles were arrested, compared to a 32.9:9.8% statewide ratio, and a 7.1:3.3% national ratio;
  • Adult arrest rates in 2012 show a similarly shocking 29.5% of Blacks arrested in Dane County, while only 3.6% of whites were arrested, compared to a 23:5.3% statewide ratio, and a 8.2:3.3% national ratio.

Much has been written about these shocking numbers and their human toll, with great leadership being demonstrated in the African-American community, particularly by Rev. Alex Gee, whom I wrote about previously.

However, 6 months after this compelling report which basically describes Madison and Dane County as perhaps the worst place for African-Americans to live in the nation, none of the institutions responsible for this ongoing tragedy: our schools systems; our system of justice; or our economic policy makers; have made specific commitments to stem the tide of this tragedy.

When I last met with Rev. Gee a couple of weeks ago, I suggested that his leadership had presented a unique opportunity to move Madison and Dane County from the Worst to the First in the nation on addressing racial disparities.  While many may be skeptical and remain satisfied with tinkering around the edges to seek and hopefully obtain minor, incremental improvements, I believe that with:

  • clearly identified, measurable goals,
  • community-wide support to achieve those goals,
  • policy changes and programs designed to achieve those goals; and
  • clear accountability for community leaders to take credit for achieving those goals and blame for failure to do so,

we can create The Madison Model for ending racial disparities, and more importantly, achieving racial justice as an example for the nation.

Skeptics will argue that my suggestions are naive and such dramatic improvement simply cannot be achieved.  Indeed, without clear measurable goals, community-wide support to achieve those goals, policy changes and programs designed to achieve those goals, and clear accountability for community leaders to achieve those goals, Madison and Dane County will likely stay mired in its misery of racial injustice.  Fortunately, Rev. Gee’s coalition has galvanized many and will be convening organizing meetings on March 29th & April 5th to move this process forward.  I look forward to participating in both sessions to continue our work in moving Madison from Worst to First.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Madison takes Positive Steps towards Improved Behavior Plan

The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) has issued its 2nd draft of its proposed new student discipline policy, which shows great improvement over the first draft.  A feedback session for community members is scheduled for tomorrow (Feb. 27th) for the 2nd draft.

The 2nd draft exhibits a significant improvement over the first draft, including adopting a number of the suggestions I made in my comments on the first draft. These improvements include:

  • The name has changed to the Behavior Education Plan which appropriately reflects the newly stated purpose of:

Creating Safe, Supporting and Thriving Learning Environments…where all students are able and expected to learn.

  • A stated Shift in Practice which:

moves us away from zero-tolerance policies and exclusionary practices toward proactive approaches that focus on building student and staff skills and competencies, which, in turn, lead to greater productivity and success.

  • An explicit recognition of racial and disability disparities in discipline which exist both nationally and within MMSD.
  • Clear stated purposes of the plan.
  • A strong emphasis on Positive Behavior Support and other pro-social interventions with a stated expectation that all school staff establish positive relationships with students.
  • Students are granted the rights to:
  • Attend school and be valued members of the community; and receive instruction to learn school behavior expectations and social and emotional skills.

  • Emphasizing that:

Understanding student behavior as an opportunity for learning is fundamental to a positive and progressive approach to discipline….Every reasonable effort should be made to correct inappropriate student behavior using Intervention Strategies and the least severe Discipline Responses possible….Because inappropriate behavior may be symptomatic of underlying problems that students are experiencing, it is critical that all staff be sensitive to issues that may influence student behavior and respond in a progressive manner that is most supportive of student needs.

  • Acknowledging that:

Foundational to supporting positive behavior in all students is the use of effective, culturally-relevant instruction.

Together, these positive steps, if adopted by the school board, would place Madison along with progressive school districts such as San Francisco, which recently approved a policy favoring alternatives to suspension.

While these are huge steps forward, more room for improvement remains.  Further steps forward should include:

  • The 2nd draft includes separate plans for elementary school students and middle and high school students, but the differences between these plans are so minor that they are likely to cause more confusion than clarity.
  • While 6 good purposes of the Plan are set forth, at least 3 should be added, including:
  1. Teaching appropriate behavior to all students;
  2. Ensuring that no instructional time is lost due to disciplinary practices; and
  3. Eliminating racial and disability disparities in disciplinary practices.
  • While many “rights” are set forth, it remains uncertain what the school district’s response will be if those “rights” are not granted.  For example, the “right” to “attend school” should trump suspension and expulsion.  Furthermore, if the “right” to “receive instruction to learn school behavior expectations and social and emotional skills” is denied, will the school district refrain from punitive disciplinary practices?
  • Adding clear annual school specific and overall district numerical goals with clearly stated accountability for implementing the pro-social interventions, reducing the school to prison pipeline, and eliminating racial and disability disparities in disciplinary practices.

While it is unlikely to be placed within the Plan, in order for MMSD to implement a progressive Behavior Education Plan, it needs to put significant resources into staff and student training.  Advocates will need to encourage the school board to pass an improved version of this plan, but to provide the necessary funding for its successful implementation. It is time to adopt a policy which has zero tolerance for failure to educate all of our children.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Expanding the Compassion Footprint: Zero Tolerance for Failure to Educate

A few weeks ago, I had the good fortune to attend the Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice’s Annual Faith-Labor Breakfast in Madison.  The keynote speaker, Dalia Mogahed, co-author of, Who Speaks for Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think, spoke eloquently of the world’s need to expand the compassion footprint.  She made a fitting comparison to the world’s need to decrease the carbon footprint in order to slow global warming.  While no individual can have a tremendous impact on global warming, collectively each of us can take small actions every day, from turning off our lights when not in use to riding our bikes instead of driving, in order to reduce our personal carbon footprint. Collectively, all of those actions can make a difference in fighting global warming.

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Similarly, Ms. Mogahed explained, no single individual can bring about world peace, let alone solve the major social issues plaguing our community, such as poverty, inadequate education and discrimination.  Yet, each of us can expand our compassion footprint each day by actions both great and small, in a wide variety of ways that are within our reach.  As she explained in this article, Muslim medical students in Los Angeles, expanded their compassion footprint, by establishing the, “University Muslim Medical Association Community Clinic (UMMA),  a full service free medical center started by Muslim medical students in South Los Angeles, one of America’s most underserved and impoverished communities.”

Indeed, President Obama has set up a platform to enable every American to expand our compassion footprint through the United We Serve campaign.  Through this web site, anyone can easily find a way to serve their own community and improve it.

While these organized approaches are certainly important, it is also worth remembering that small acts of kindness and compassion, from shoveling an elderly neighbor’s sidewalk, to visiting an ill friend or relative in the hospital, all collectively expand the compassion footprint, and make the world a better place to live.

Since a part of me is naturally cynical, I asked Ms. Mogahed about how to confront the reality that many in our world will choose not to be compassionate and instead may work in ways that make life harder for those who need compassion most.  Just like global warming cannot be stopped merely by each of us taking small actions, but indeed, requires systemic reform of the way we produce power and energy in our world, the social ills of our world, cannot be completely solved by small individual acts of compassion.  This does not render those acts of compassion useless or unnecessary.  Rather, those individual acts of compassion can help build a movement to demand systemic change in the way our society approaches social ills such as poverty, inadequate education and discrimination.

Since systems change requires inspiring action, we need leaders who will inspire us to be more compassionate on an individual and collective basis.  One good example currently inspiring action is Rev. Alex Gee, who recently convened a community meeting which I attended along with hundreds of others to work together to end racism and close the achievement gap in Madison.  I look forward to working with Rev. Gee and many others to address our community’s ills and as I urged those in attendance to seize the educational opportunity to reform the Madison School District’s discipline policies to,

End zero tolerance discipline policies fueling the school to prison pipeline and establish zero tolerance for failure to educate.

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For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.

Federal Government takes Stand Against Schools to Prison Pipeline

Today, the U.S. Dept. of Education joined with U.S. Dept. of Justice in issuing important guidance on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of Student Discipline.  This extensive 23 page letter with an 8 page appendix begins by reviewing the data uncovered by the Civil Rights Data Collection (CDRC) conducted by the Dept. of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR).  This data reveals significant racial disparities in the administration of student discipline.  Among the findings are:

  • African-American students without disabilities are more than three times as likely as their white peers without disabilities to be expelled or suspended.
  • Although African-American students represent 15% of students in the CRDC, they make up 35% of students suspended once, 44% of those suspended more than once, and 36% of students expelled.
  • Over 50% of students who were involved in school-related arrests or referred to law enforcement are Hispanic or African-American.

Most significantly, the guidance states that,

research suggests that the substantial racial disparities of the kind reflected in the CRDC data are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color.

This is because

in our investigations we have found cases where African-American students were disciplined more harshly and more frequently because of their race than similarly situated white students. In short, racial discrimination in school discipline is a real problem. 

It is important to understand that,

The CRDC data also show that an increasing number of students are losing important instructional time due to exclusionary discipline. The increasing use of disciplinary sanctions such as in-school and out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, or referrals to law enforcement authorities creates the potential for significant, negative educational and long-term outcomes, and can contribute to what has been termed the “school to prisons pipeline.” Studies have suggested a correlation between exclusionary discipline policies and practices and an array of serious educational, economic, and social problems, including school avoidance and diminished educational engagement; decreased academic achievement; increased behavior problems; increased likelihood of dropping out; substance abuse; and involvement with juvenile justice systems.

The guidance letter then specifically points out prohibited practices including intentional discrimination by disparate treatment, i.e., administering harsher discipline on students due to their race (or other protected class) for the same behavior as another student; and discrimination through disparate impact where one racial (or other protected class) group receives overall harsher or more discipline than another without valid justification.  To determine whether this is occurring, the federal government will ask the following questions:

  1. Has the discipline policy resulted in an adverse impact on students of a particular race as compared with students of other races?
  2. Is the discipline policy necessary to meet an important educational goal?
  3. Are there comparably effective alternative policies or practices that would meet the school’s stated educational goal with less of a burden or adverse impact on the disproportionately affected racial group, or is the school’s proffered justification a pretext for discrimination?

Examples of policies that can raise disparate impact concerns include policies that impose mandatory suspension, expulsion, or citation (e.g., ticketing or other fines or summonses) upon any student who commits a specified offense – such as being tardy to class, being in possession of a cellular phone, being found insubordinate, acting out, or not wearing the proper school uniform; corporal punishment policies that allow schools to paddle, spank, or otherwise physically punish students; and discipline policies that prevent youth returning from involvement in the justice system from reenrolling in school. Additionally, policies that impose out-of-school suspensions or expulsions for truancy also raise concerns because a school would likely have difficulty demonstrating that excluding a student from attending school in response to the
student’s efforts to avoid school was necessary to meet an important educational goal.

From an advocacy perspective, this means that if advocates file complaints against school districts for discriminatory discipline practices, and the federal government substantiates the complaint, the federal government may require one or more of the following remedies:

  • correcting the records of students who were treated differently regarding the infraction and sanction imposed;
  • providing compensatory, comparable academic services to students receiving in-school or out-of-school suspensions, expelled, placed in an alternative school, or otherwise removed from academic instruction;
  • revising discipline policies to provide clear definitions of infractions to ensure that consequences are fair and consistent;
  • developing and implementing strategies for teaching, including the use of appropriate supports and interventions, which encourage and reinforce positive student behaviors and utilize exclusionary discipline as a last resort;
  • providing training for school personnel on revised discipline policies and classroom management techniques;
  • providing school-based supports for struggling students whose behavior repeatedly disrupts their education and/or the education of other students;
  • designating a school official as a discipline supervisor to ensure that the school implements its discipline policies fairly and equitably;
  • conducting and/or reviewing comprehensive needs assessments to ensure they are effective in measuring the perceptions of students and other members of the community in connection with the administration of school discipline, and using the results of these assessments to make responsive changes to policies and practices;
  • at least annually, conducting a forum during the school day that provides students, teachers and administrators the opportunity to discuss matters relating to discipline and provide input on the school’s discipline policies;
  • developing a training and information program for students and community members that explains the school’s discipline policies and what is expected of students in an age-appropriate, easily understood manner;
  • creating a plan for improving teacher-student relationships and on-site mentoring programs; and
  • conducting an annual comprehensive review of school resource officer interventions and practices to assess their effectiveness in helping the school meet its goals and objectives for student safety and discipline.

Finally, the Appendix includes important recommendations to improve school climate, including:

  • Creating safe, inclusive, and positive school climates that provide students with supports such as evidence-based tiered supports and social and emotional learning.
  • Providing all school personnel, including teachers, administrators, support personnel, and school resource officers, with ongoing, job-embedded professional development and training in evidence-based techniques on classroom management, conflict resolution, and de- escalation approaches that decrease classroom disruptions and utilize exclusionary disciplinary sanctions as a last resort.
  • Ensuring that school personnel understand that they, rather than school resource officers and other security or law enforcement personnel, are responsible for administering routine student discipline.
  • Ensuring that discipline policies include a range of measures that students may take to improve their behavior prior to disciplinary action.
  • Emphasizing positive interventions over student removal.
  • Developing a policy requiring the regular evaluation of each school’s discipline policies and practices and other school-wide behavior management approaches to determine if they are affecting students of different racial and ethnic groups equally.
  • Collecting and using multiple forms of data, including school climate surveys, incident data, and other measures as needed, to track progress in creating and maintaining a safe, inclusive and positive educational environment.

In sum, this landmark guidance is an important step in eliminating the Schools to Prison Pipeline.  Now it is up to advocates and school districts to make sure this guidance is implemented and that the Schools to Prison Pipeline becomes a thing of the past so all students can thrive and learn in safe schools.


For more information on how I can help you accomplish effective, progressive systems change e-mail Jeff Spitzer-Resnick or visit Systems Change Consulting.