Some angry parents Wednesday night accused the Schenectady City School District of arresting far more black students than white students.
Colleen Dawson-Williams said her son, a high school student, was clowning around in the hallways about two months ago and the school administrators called the police to arrest him.
Dawson-Williams said the dean of students had called her but her son was already at the police station by the time she got to the school. She said her son was charged with trespassing. Those charges were eventually dismissed, but she said it shouldn’t have happened.
“My son shouldn’t have been incarcerated,” she said at a community meeting at the Hamilton Hill Arts Center on Wednesday evening. The event was organized by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) to give parents a chance to ask questions of school officials. About 30 people attended.
In March, ACORN sent a letter to Superintendent Eric Ely seeking to give input on how to improve the schools in the wake of four suicides of Schenectady High School students this academic year. ACORN officials believe that this problem was part of a larger issue of teens in distress.
Dawson-Williams said black students are being arrested in high numbers. “What do you think that does to your morale, their self-esteem?”
She said she would like the attorney general’s office to investigate this matter.
Deborah Rembert also said she believes there is a double standard.
“These African-American kids, if they just breathe hard, they’re going straight to jail, directly to jail without any questions,” she said.
Ely said he did not have any statistics on the number of arrests readily available but he would look into the issue. He stressed that the schools do not arrest anybody: That’s the police’s job. Sometimes, he said, there are situations where police have to be called.
“If a child is out of control and we can’t control the situation, we’ll call the police to respond,” he said.
“Whatever happened to calling the parent first?” shouted another audience member.
Others suggested that counselors should talk to these children before calling law enforcement.
“In many cases, they won’t listen to anybody,” Ely calmly responded.
Ely said he agreed that enforcement of rules at the high school can be inconsistent. For example, some teachers do not have an issue with students wearing hats in class, but others consider it a major problem.
If police are called, the officers make the decision about whether a student broke the law. School officials and students will be interviewed as witnesses.
“You’re sugarcoating it!” Dawson-Williams yelled. She and Rembert stormed out of the room shortly thereafter.
Portia Alston said she hears that gangs at the high school are feuding with one another. Also, some students are harassed and bullied and respond in retaliation. However, only those students who fought back against the bullies are punished.
“The staff needs to be aware of what’s going on. There’s a lot of troubled and troubling kids at Schenectady High that create issues,” she said.
Other issues raised included the lack of minority teachers and counselors. Ely said that about 7 to 8 percent of the teaching and counseling staff is non-white and they have tried to recruit more: “Quite frankly, there just aren’t a lot of candidates out there.”
Another topic was making sure counselors are meeting with students on a regular basis and making sure they are aware of scholarship opportunities.
Lynn Rafalik, director of pupil personnel services for the school district, said the guidance office works with students to chart out their academic plan and help them make decisions about their future.
ACORN had presented a list of recommendations to the superintendent based on some previous community meetings. The school district has already agreed to several of them, including building a community coalition to distribute information about current policies on youth distress. In addition, it will hold a three-day training program on this issue for certain staff members this August and for all school staff in February 2010.
The district will also work with ACORN to get more parents involved in their children’s schools. It supports the idea of a student representative on the board and will look into crafting an anonymous survey to get students’ views on school issues and the performance of the teachers and staff.