Discrimination in K-12 schools explored at hearing

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Kassie Ross left the Michigan School for the Deaf, seeking the educational experience other teens her age were getting at the local public high school.

"I decided I wanted to go to school with my friends and play on sports teams. I wanted to be normal," Ross said.

What the deaf student got instead was a lack of accommodation and language barriers, Ross told the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday during a hearing on discrimination in K-12 schools.

"If I asked for a meeting with my interpreter, they would tell me to stay home. I was always treated differently," Ross said. "I was a last thought. When they had a movie, they turned off the lights so I couldn’t see my interpreter. I got watered down assignments and versions of homework. Teachers never thought I was capable of the work."

FILE - Detroit Public Schools Community District Superintendent Nikolai P. Vitti said the district  is transforming its culture with a new student code of conduct focus on progressive discipline instead of expulsion, which allows for in-school suspension and reduces student absenteeism, which is connected to poor student performance.

Ross left the school, which she declined to identify, and returned to the Michigan School for the Deaf, where she graduated in 2015. But she told the commission during the hearing at Wayne County Community College in Detroit that educators and the public need training on how to work with deaf individuals.

"People don’t understand us as deaf people; they don’t appreciate our language or understand our needs to work," Ross said.

The hearing attracted about 80 people and featured testimony from high school students including Dua Ali, a 10th-grader who attends Fordson High School in Dearborn.

Ali said at Fordson, where most students are Arab or Muslim, discrimination is there but it's not not visible.

"You have to seek it out. The only time my religion was brought up is when something bad happened like 9-11," Ali said. "It made us all feel guilty when it was brought it. We never learned about adventures or accomplishment of Arab people."

The environment created was one in which Ali said she did not want to speak up.

"Who would listen to me, right? We treated ourselves differently," Ali said.

Vicki Levengood, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, said the commission announced in May it would explore the issue of discrimination in K-12 schools.

The decision came after the release of its 2017 report on a year-long investigation into the civil rights implications of the Flint water crisis. During three public hearings and while taking testimony from more than 150 residents, experts and government officials on the Flint crisis, reports of discrimination in K-12 schools based on race also surfaced, Levengood said.

After the 2016 presidential election, the department also saw a spike in bias incidents in public schools, Levengood said.

Nikolai Vitti, Detroit Public Schools Community District superintendent; Wayne State education professor Michael Addonizio; and Dan Quisenberry, the head of Michigan’s charter school association, participated on a panel that focused on challenges and opportunities facing K-12 education, such as alternative schools, charter schools and public schools.

Commissioner Jeff Sakwa asked Vitti and Quisenberry if they collaborated, and agreed charter schools were a part of educational choice. 

"Do kids come first?" Sakwa asked.

Quisenberry and Vitti both said charter and traditional public school officials are both working together on an A-F report card for all schools in the city. The system is under development.

Vitti said the district is transforming its culture with a new student code of conduct focus on progressive discipline instead of expulsion, which allows for in-school suspension and reduces student absenteeism, which is connected to poor student performance. Yet funding disparities remains among its biggest challenges, Vitti said.

"We are not adequately supporting K-12 education; that is more profoundly impacting us," Vitti said.

Commissioner Alma Wheeler Smith told the panel: "This commission understands that dollars matter and we have to invest in our children if we are going to be successful."

The public hearing is the fourth the commission has held on discrimination in Michigan’s K-12 schools since May. A fifth hearing is planned for Jan. 28 in Macomb County. 

Members of the Civil Rights Commission will report their findings after the first of the year. The report will be given to state lawmakers and the governor, and be made public, Levengood said. 

The report recommendations will address public and charter schools that receive taxpayer dollars, not private schools.