Photo courtesy of Georgia Public Broadcasting

The overuse of out-of-school suspensions and expulsions –one of the culprits in the nation’s education and dropout crisis — remains as much a problem now as it was when your editor first began writing about the problem six years ago. With 15 percent of all middle-school boys suspended by the time they reach eighth grade  — and black males suspended at an abominable rate of 28 percent —  according to Daniel Losen and Russ Skiba in their Suspended Education report, we have far too many young men and women who are kicked out of school for long periods of time, missing precious learning time that they need for their academic success. And they are suspended and expelled not because they have harmed their fellow students, but because of misbehavior that teachers and principals can easily deal with through better means and discretionary school discipline policies that particularly hurt black and Latino students.

In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, English Language Learner teacher Laura Suarez, who, as a middle-schooler, was pulled off the path of illiteracy and dropping out by school counselor, recalls her experiences with school leaders and others who were far too willing to throw our students into poverty and despair. Read, consider, and take action.

In the years that I worked in public schools, I always started the day with the Pledge of Allegiance.  As a teacher of students who were learning English, I wanted them to be proud of this country. The phrase, “liberty and justice for all,” resonated with me in a deeply personal way. I would always have my students sing a patriotic or inspirational song after reciting the pledge.  We learned everything from “America” to the 1960s protest song, Freedom Road. I wanted my English learners to celebrate the culture of their new country and retain a sense of pride in the land from which they came. I also taught my students that all people of this land should be treated with dignity and respect.

Little did I know in my early years of teaching that the values I held so deeply and taught so passionately were not shared by all of my colleagues in the field of education.

In my 26 years in education, I have seen more unsettling stories than I care to remember. I came into this field with a willingness to ask questions and a desire to promote values of equity and fairness into the classroom. Yes, I was the teacher at the staff meeting that often asked the wrong questions. For this I make no apologies. I entered the profession of teaching because I believed that all children deserved an education that would prepare them for a successful and fulfilling life. I believed that by becoming an educational leader, I could continue to follow my heart in bringing about equality and justice for every student, regardless of culture and country of origin.

Unfortunately, sometimes my convictions regarding the basic rights of students resulted in some very difficult and career-shaking events for me. For example, my career as an administrator was brought to a screeching halt when I spoke out about injustices that were taking place at my school. During that year, more than a dozen middle students were expelled after administrators used coercive and highly questionable interrogation tactics to get the students to admit they had committed a serious school infraction.  The expulsions suddenly stopped after I spoke to a district official about the nature of the interrogations that had taken place.

In spite of this fact, only three of the boys were able to return to school that year. They came from white families whose parents threatened to take legal action against the school district. The rest of the boys did not return. They were all from poor Hispanic families that were bused in from a low-income area.

Unfortunately, the system of justice in public schools is often determined by one’s economic class and culture. I have seen far too many examples of this in the course of professional career in education. During my short time as an administrator, I found that administrators were more likely to suspend and expel students in need as opposed to taking the time to work with these young people to help them work through issues. I grew very disappointed with the lack of interest in helping students who are at-risk or struggling to succeed in school.

My decision to speak out in the case of the middle school boys resulted in an abrupt end to my career as an administrator.  This was not the first time (nor the last) that I have found myself in hot water for speaking out for the rights of my students.

As an educator I have always felt that it is a privilege and a responsibility to serve the community. Therefore, I feel obligated to take great care in using my own moral compass to act in a manner that is respectful of the rights of my students. The question becomes– how far should an educator go to stand up for the fundamental rights of students? Should one stay quiet until those years of service add up to a comfortable life in retirement? Or, should one risk it all to save a student from injustice?

Luckily, most of us never have to make that choice. Many teachers never have an opportunity to test their own sense of integrity against the omnipotent “powers that be” behind office doors.