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Teen will tell UN forum of unfair school disciplinary system

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When it feels like justice is an ocean away, sometimes you have to cross the water.

A soft-spoken 19-year-old named CJ Jones and his dad will do just that next week. They will fly from their home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Geneva, Switzerland, to tell the United Nations what officials in CJ’s native state didn’t want to hear: that the teenager’s high school years were cut short, and his future nearly derailed, by a school disciplinary system with a history of disproportionately and arbitrarily punishing Black students.

Accompanied by a delegation from the Southern Poverty Law Center from April 16-19, the pair will address the United Nations Permanent Forum on People of African Descent. They will share a story all too common: of a Black student punished and forced out of school for a minor, unproven offense. In CJ’s case, school officials claimed he was in possession of a small amount of marijuana found in a car parked at the school. But the then-high school senior was a passenger in the car, no evidence ever tied him to the drug, and the police eventually charged someone else.

What should have been a triumphant senior year as a star of his high school baseball team devolved instead into a time of loneliness and mistrust. CJ, whose full name is being withheld because he was a minor at the time of the incident, was warehoused at in-school suspension for months without due process. Then, he was told after a school hearing – at which he was not allowed to tell his story, be represented by a lawyer or present evidence – that he was being sent to an “alternative” school. He withdrew instead and finished his degree requirements through a home-schooling program.

“Nobody, nobody was listening to me,” CJ said. “I told them the truth, and nobody listened.”

The U.N. may seem an odd forum for the SPLC to speak on injustices levied by school districts in the U.S. But the SPLC’s upcoming participation in the forum is part of an evolving strategy to use the power of international condemnation to shine a light on the enduring injustices at home.

International advocacy

Over the past three years, the SPLC has specifically turned to international advocacy as an additional tool to advance its policy goals. In 2022, it submitted a report and sent a delegation to the U.N. to discuss U.S. violations of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. It followed that last year with a slew of similar actions at U.N. forums on racial justice and equality in law enforcement, on racism and on civil and political rights, among other actions on the international stage.

The U.N. is pushing for equitable and accessible education worldwide for people of African descent. That made the SPLC leadership determined to use the opportunity to hold the country that has long held itself out as a beacon of human rights accountable for its failings.

At the Geneva forum this month, the SPLC has been invited to participate in the U.S. government’s side event on equitable education. Other panelists are expected to include officials from the White House and several U.S. government agencies.

The scrutiny of the international organization has led to increased attention to human rights within the U.S. by the White House and members of Congress, said Lisa Borden, the SPLC’s senior policy counsel for international advocacy.

“We’re working in atmospheres where [far-right extremists] like Moms for Liberty are being elected to school boards,” Borden said. “And our state legislatures are filled with far-right partisans. And every time a local government that might have a different view tries to do something beneficial, a state legislature bats it down.”

Given that kind of rejection of human rights and pushback at the local and state levels, “I’m not sure if there is a straightforward way to accomplish these things. So, we have to use every tool at our disposal for as long as that tool is available,” Borden said. “If it takes going to an international body to make our case, we will continue to do that to advance the ball.”

‘Opening the jail cell’

Cory Jones, CJ’s father, said his first reaction when he heard the accusation against his son was to question his son himself. His second was anger. A police investigation found the marijuana belonged to someone else, and there is no evidence CJ did anything wrong.

In February, CJ filed a lawsuit against Tuscaloosa City Schools, alleging he had been “unlawfully and arbitrarily suspended” and deprived of his education.

But even if his son had been responsible, Jones said, the punishment meted out to a student with no record of major disciplinary problems was horrifying.

Alternative schools were adopted by many districts in the late 1960s to offer flexible instruction for students not thriving in traditional learning environments. By the 1990s, they had become places to stash students for even minor, first-time infractions of school rules. The schools are usually poorly staffed and starved of resources. Students placed in such schools in Alabama are overwhelmingly Black.

“That would be like opening the jail cell for my son,” Cory Jones said of sending his son to alternative school. “Alabama is building megaprisons, and I won’t give them my son to help fill them.”

The School Superintendents Association – a national group that has at times fiercely defended local administrators’ discretion in handling disruptive students – says alternative schools should not typically be used as a disciplinary placement for nonserious offenses.

Tuscaloosa City Schools officials have declined to comment on CJ’s case. Officials maintain they follow established policies and procedures in addressing disciplinary issues.

Arbitrarily pushed out

For all he endured, CJ was fortunate. His father was able and willing to stand up for him. He earned a high school diploma, and he is working now at an automotive supplier. He plans to apply to college in the fall. He says he wants to open his own business someday.

But in Alabama and in other parts of the Deep South, what has become known as the school-to-prison pipeline has had a devastating impact on many Black children. In Alabama, Black students in the 2018-2019 school year were nearly twice as likely to face every type of classroom removal as compared to their white peers, according to an analysis of Alabama State Department of Education data by AL.com. A study published in 2022 found that, nationwide, 27% of male Black students with disabilities were suspended from middle and high schools compared with 7% of students overall.

“Alabama is a state that has a history of pushing Black kids out of schools and into punishment-oriented settings,” said Delvin Davis, SPLC senior policy analyst on decarceration and criminal legal system reform policy. “CJ is one of many, many cases where you have a young Black person who should be in school, but instead of providing resources and education for him they choose isolation and punishment.”

Davis is the author of the SPLC report Only Young Once: Alabama’s Overreliance on School Pushout and For-Profit Youth Incarceration. The report details how a narrative of youth crime contributes to overly punitive school discipline, racial disparities and an expensive youth legal system that is not designed for rehabilitation.

In Alabama, unlike even in neighboring Georgia and Mississippi, there is no statewide standard for providing due process to students facing school disciplinary proceedings.

In Alabama, as in many states, “depending on what school district you’re in, you can be arbitrarily pushed out without any kind of hearing or phone notification in advance for your parents or your guardians or anybody that can advocate for you,” Davis said. “You don’t have a chance to really tell your side of the story. And whatever the school district wants to do with you, they can lean on you to push you out.”

The impact of such unequal treatment is dire. Research has consistently found that suspensions increase a student’s likelihood of dropping out of school or ending up in the criminal legal system.

In Tuscaloosa and in places like it, people like CJ and his parents are doing the hard work of trying to upend a discriminatory system that is stacked against Black youth.

‘A strike against you’

CJ’s odyssey began on Nov. 10, 2022, when he stayed after math class at Paul W. Bryant High School to get help from his teacher. Having missed the bus to the Tuscaloosa Career and Technology Academy, where he was enrolled in trade classes, he got a ride with a friend and three other students.

When the group of boys arrived at the school, the four other boys were stopped by a school resource officer because he said they smelled of marijuana. Officials found 8 grams of marijuana in the car. CJ was not detained and went to class to take a test.

Later, he was called to the office, where the other boys were waiting, CJ said. Ultimately, the driver of the car was sent to youth detention. Two other boys received no punishment. CJ told officials he didn’t use the drug, and no investigation or evidence ever tied him to it. Nevertheless, he and another boy were given in-school suspension.

After two months of missing classes, CJ finally saw his case come up before a disciplinary review committee. A lawyer CJ’s father had hired was not allowed in the hearing. No testimony was taken from CJ or his family, and no evidence was introduced. When the hearing was over, district officials sentenced CJ to 45 days in an alternative school.

On graduation day at his high school, CJ sat quietly in the audience. He had missed most of his senior year. He had missed his prom. His hopes of playing baseball in college had been dashed. He had spent months in front of a computer taking online classes, depressed and alone. But he came to cheer for his friends.

In a recent interview, Cory Jones fought to suppress tears, not because of what had happened to his own son, he said, but because of the many other young people not in a position to fight back.

“I won’t stop, because if I allow this to happen to my child, what will happen to the other kids who don’t have a voice?” Jones said. “It gets me emotionally tired, because it shouldn’t be a different narrative just because of the color of your skin. To use a baseball analogy, if you come up to home plate and you’ve already got a strike against you, something’s wrong. Something’s wrong.”

Photo at top: CJ Jones will travel from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to Geneva, Switzerland, to tell the U.N. how he was forced out of high school for a minor, unproven offense. (Credit: Hillary Hudson)



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