The Mis-Education Of My Son

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[Op-Ed: Commentary]

Editor's Note The following Op-Ed article was written by a concerned parent who voiced grievances to the Chief Operating Officer Katie Duffy at Democracy Prep Charter school and some teachers about what she believes is psychological abuse of her son there. This newspaper sent questions to Ms. Duffy to give the school an opportunity to respond. She declined to comment, writing: "Thank you so much for your email. Per our network policy, we do not comment on specific scholars or incidents related to specific scholars. Thank you for understanding."

Mother Says Son Trailed And Videotaped In Charter School To Crush His Spirit

Here is the parent, Ms. Bukola Shonuga's article:

It's time to examine the police state structure of some of the charter schools model in the minority community in New York.

While I was gathering the facts to write this article, the stalemate situation at my son's school, Democracy Prep middle school in Harlem is unraveling faster than I can keep pace. On May 22nd, my son told me that at lunch time, his teachers were directed to video tape him in every classroom. One of the teachers according to him followed him with a camera into the lunch room when he went to pick up his lunch, followed him up the stairs into the hallway and continued videotaping him while he was eating lunch. I was so outraged. I couldn't believe the school would actually break the law by videotaping a scholar without parental consent.

So I emailed the principal and copied all the teachers including the superintendent of the Charter Schools in District 5 in Harlem. I also spoke with the Principal who told me that it's routine to place  a camera in the classrooms to which I responded that it had never been the case for the last nine months and assuming that it's routine, why was my son singled out and followed with a camera and made uncomfortable while he was eating lunch?

There was no response to that question.  I also emailed the particular teacher involved and copied every relevant party. I have not gotten any reply to that email message either.

Earlier, last Friday, May 18 my son stormed into the house from school - in another outburst of frustration with his school. "This School sucks," the 12 year old blurted. "Can you believe we didn't attend  regular classes today? They separated 46 bad students including me into two groups of 26 and sent us to a special class called 'Prep Academy''.

Normally it takes a while for certain information to register in my brain, particularly the endless daily discipline saga at Democracy Prep where my son has been attending for the past nine months. But he persisted, "So Mommy, they think we are bad kids and had to separate us from the good kids right"?

That caught my attention so I  stopped and looked him in the eyes and reassured him that he's a very smart, kind and loving young man, and that he's going to realize his dream by becoming one of the best scientist of his generation.

And more importantly he should never allow anyone to define or label him as a "bad-kid". Nurturing and preserving my son's self-esteem has become a daily routine in the last five months due to the covert psychological abuse he's been experiencing daily at school.

Democracy Prep Charter Middle School in Harlem was an attractive choice when I was searching for school for my son about a year ago, having just moved from Brooklyn where I'd lived for over 20 years. I was rudely awakened by the shortage of good middle schools in the Harlem area and particularly in district 15.

A friend of mine informed me of Democracy Prep and I went to the open house and decided that it sounded like a good fit for my son. I remember sitting in the orientation session and marveling at the no-nonsense and sound academic model presentation. For starters I like the idea that students have to wear a uniform and that accessories and other distracting personal effects are not allowed.

The scholars must abide by school rules and orderliness and so on. I fell in love with their reading marathon program called  "word count " where scholars are rewarded based on how many words they read per month. I love reading and I thought it'd be a huge incentive for my son who loves to write but needed to do more reading.

Fast forward: the first trimester was like Xmas. My son got mostly A and Bt  grades and everyone was happy including the school of course.

But as the second trimester begun in January I noticed that he started to complain about how he didn't fit in with the kids and how some used "bad" language - and how they didn't like him because he's different and so on.

Yes, my son's different in the sense of not being street smart. He was never allowed to venture out by himself because I was a little too paranoid about him traveling alone. Not to mention that he's sort of an absent-minded professor. But academically, he's very smart.

I started to notice frequent behavioral comments on his weekly progress report. I eventually learned that those comments adds up  to detention, then interrogation (called reflection) and then suspension.

I went to a colonial boarding school in Nigeria and when you got suspended it meant you'd committed a serious crime - like skipping school for days, stealing, falsifying your report card, cheating on exams, or having boys over in your dormitory.

So when my son told me he'd been suspended, I was outraged.  I demanded to meet with the principal immediately. She explained that once a scholar is sent out twice in one day, he or she is automatically suspended.

I was really shocked to hear this so I asked why my son was sent out at all in the first place? And I found out a the litany of allegations ("deductions," "detentions," and "interrogations") called reflections, then suspension.

I couldn't believe the extreme disciplinary system; akin to taking a suspect to a police station where offenders are booked and then jailed. But in this situation, scholars are suspended.

I was flabbergasted and my journalistic instinct was automatically activated telling me there's something worth investigating here. So I  decided to take advantage of the "open door" policy and started showing up unannounced to observe the classes in session to find out what rules my son was breaking that's resulting in him being sent out almost daily, which had led to three suspensions in three months.

On my first visit to observe class I was struck by the robotic and monotonous style of teaching whereby teachers are programmed to literally clock every second of the class through a count down, while simultaneously monitoring every movement and body language of the young students.

The students are supposed to respond in non-verbal coded signals called :  spirit fingers - a twirling of all ten fingers in the direction of the scholar being supported - means a 'show of support,' brain match  - is the simultaneous waving of the thumb and the pinkie - it means 'I agree with you,' track your speaker means 'focusing on who's speaking,'  pound it out  - a chorus of pounding on the desks -  means 'the question is answered correctly'; and so on.

So now I understand fully well why my 12 year old who is very creative and loves to be in motion would feel like he's in prison; having to endure ten hours of monotonous class sessions daily without any sports activities or recess. Scholars have to eat their lunch in their respective classroom/homeroom and are only given fifteen to twenty minutes.

I don't know many adults who would survive these conditions.  I sat in about about 15 sessions and observed my son and the other students. Yes, some of the them were very quiet and not interactive; and yes, some, including my son, were somewhat restless after awhile.  The latter category - in which my son belongs - was very interactive, usually enthusiastic and tended to raise their hands all the time to answer a question.

The endless list of reasons for which students can get railroaded into detention and ultimately suspension include: "not spontaneous on queue," "clapping three times instead of twice as prompted," "slouching over the desk," "looking back at another student," "talking," "mumbling to yourself," "fake coughing or sneezing," "asking to go to the rest room," "raising your hands too long," "clearing your throat" or "breathing too hard."

I found this preposterous.

So the process of suspension usually starts as follows.  A teacher would declare "that's one," meaning a deduction, then if a student interjects "what did I do,"?  The teacher would respond: "that's two."

The third deduction automatically sends a student to "COLUMBIA," the detention room managed by two African-America male coaches.

All the Advisory/home rooms are named after a University. My son is in UCONN. I'm not sure why the detention room is called COLUMBIA. And by the way all the teachers at this charter school are white and from out of state. The  school's administrators did manage to get two coaches that are African-American from the New York City area. They are the two in charge of the detention room.

Is there something wrong with that picture? Yes, in my opinion. These coaches are more like interrogating officers who hand students a three- to five- page packet called a "reflection packet,"  asking the students to give an account of the incident that led them to detention.

In most cases students are held for hours and not allowed back in class for the rest of the day the "detainees" account of the incident differs from that of the teacher who sent them out.

My son says he's treated unfairly. Most of the time his account the incident differs with the teacher's. So he winds up being held in detention for hours and missing an average of five hours of classwork a week and his homework begins to accumulate and become overwhelming.

It becomes impossible to catch up with hours of class assignments -- for classes he missed while he was "detained." He would have to make the best guesses; meanwhile the pile of homework that normally takes three hours per night -- he now spends endless hours catching up, not getting enough sleep at night. His grades are sliding as a result.

It's a vicious cycle that has to stop. And not just for my son but for over 50 or more scholars who have been labeled "bad kids".

My own investigation entailed hours of playing mom-detective/social worker about three hours on average per week. I spent time at the school and combed through 40 pages of documents that I demanded by force from the detention coaches/officers. I exchanged about 75 sometimes contentious e-mail messages with teachers, the principal, the assistant principal.

I discovered that one particular teacher, my son's writing teacher, was responsible for most of the "sent-outs" that had resulted in suspensions. I had already noticed a pattern of disciplinary excessiveness in her comments on the weekly progress reports. I had also raised numerous concerns about what I deemed an abuse of authority but the principal and the assistant principal defended her fiercely.

This particular teacher continued to find a litany of reasons to send my son out of her class; daily railroading him into detention knowing for sure that it would lead to suspension. She's succeeded in stigmatizing my son and that has led to him being teased by some of his classmates and other students.

My son now suffers anxiety and has nightmares. Some of the current writings in his personal journal reflects the covert psychological abuse that he's had to endure up until present.

To stop the abuse I recently demanded that my son be taken out of the writing class taught by this particular teacher;  the school adamantly refused. When I informed them of all the evidence that I've gathered to formally address this issue, they began to coach other teachers to establish a case against my son.

For example, all his teachers were directed to place a camera in all the classes he attends and one of the teachers videotaped during the lunch hour early this week.

I believe this school broke the law by targeting and exclusively videotaping my son, a minor, without my consent. I believe this is a careless action on their part to intimidate, harass and further traumatize a 12 year old whose passion is to go to school, to work hard and to become a roboticist one day.

Is this the model of charter schools in all communities of color?

In the case of Democracy Prep Charter Middle School in Harlem, there are systemic problems. Having examined the school closely these past five months, I found that there is a cultural discord and a police-like system of discipline that's highly incompatible with the demographic it serves.


Bukola Shonuga is an independent journalist listed with the US Foreign Press Center.



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