This back-to-school season, I am reflecting on the challenges students face in our community — and our potential for creating change together.
I recently learned about Shannon, a 15-year-old DC Public Schools (DCPS) student who faced a 45-day suspension. The cause? Failing to throw away a drink bottle when asked by a staff member.
Fortunately for Shannon and her family, an attorney with our grantee Advocates for Justice and Education (AJE) was on site the day of Shannon’s hearing, reviewed her “evidence packet,” and determined that Shannon’s age-typical behavior fell outside the scope of suspension. AJE’s attorney represented Shannon, successfully arguing against her unwarranted removal from the learning environment. She returned to school the next day.
Shannon’s experience is more common than you might know:
On average, 8.2% of DC students will face at least one significant disciplinary action during a school year. And suspensions and expulsions disproportionately affect low-income students, students of color, and those with disabilities. Students experiencing homelessness are suspended 2.3 times the rate of their peers.
Being excluded from school profoundly impacts children’s lives, including increasing their likelihood of dropping out, interacting with the criminal justice system, and living in poverty. Access to an attorney at these hearings — a legal professional to empower parents and advocate for students — often means the difference between wrongful discipline and staying in school.
In this work I’m inspired by AJE Executive Director Rochanda Hiligh-Thomas, who has long championed equal justice in school disciplinary law. A native Washingtonian, attorney, and mother who has encountered many of the same school system struggles faced by her clients, Rochanda knows what families are up against. Together in partnership, we’re expanding legal aid to meet the volume of need.
It is your support for DC Bar Foundation that sends AJE attorneys to hearings, representing DC’s most vulnerable students. Thank you!
Here’s to a new school year with equal opportunity for all.
Kirra L. Jarratt