Detroit Public Schools: Suspensions of disbelief

Students who protested quality of DPS education with walkout get suspensions

Raychel Gafford, one of about 125 Detroit Public Schools students suspended last week for participating in a protest, is having trouble understanding the reasoning of those responsible for providing her with an education.

Gafford helped lead last week's walkout at Western International High School in southwest Detroit. The students were protesting the planned closure of Southwestern High School. They were also attempting to draw attention to problems within the DPS system.

"As a student, I know that I am not getting the quality of education that I deserve," Gafford said, standing and shivering in Clark Park, directly across the street from her school, last Friday.

What doesn't make sense, she said, is for school officials to react to a protest over the quality of education by locking students out of the classroom.

"Can you imagine," she said, "suspending kids for asking for a better education?"

DPS spokesman Steve Wasko tells News Hits that the suspensions weren't retaliation for students exercising their right to protest. Rather, he says, it is simply a matter of the students being punished for leaving school when they were supposed to have been in class.

Wasko places much of the blame for the protests at the feet of adults he says are using the students as political "pawns." The same adult 

forces, who are opposed to the district being run by an emergency manager, were also behind a walkout earlier this year at the all-boys Frederick Douglass Academy, Wasko says. Fifty students were suspended as a result of that protest, according to published reports.

Wasko also flatly denied allegations that the cell phones of some students were confiscated by district police officers, who allegedly attempted to determine who the students had been communicating with.

John Royal, president of the Detroit and Michigan Chapter of the liberal National Lawyers Guild, says that his organization and the Michigan ACLU are investigating allegations that the phones were confiscated.

Royal, like Gafford, says he is puzzled by the district's harsh response to the student protest.

"As important as the First Amendment issues are," he wrote in a letter to the principal of Western, "I also want to address a more practical and fundamental questions, this is, how should the DPS relate to students who have evidenced their own fierce determination to secure an education?"

While acknowledging the district's need to maintain order, Royal goes on to point out: 

"... these young people were not engaged in some willful and pointless misconduct. The students were seeking, in a time-honored and constitutionally protected fashion, to make known to the public their firmly held belief that they, and their siblings and neighbors are about to lose their chance for a quality education."

"It would be pointless exercise in retribution for DPS to take any significant action which would disrupt the futures of these sincere young people," Royal adds.

Rather than have their education disrupted, a handful of the suspended students set up what they termed a "freedom school," apparently unaware that they were following in a tradition that began with protests in the 1960s.

On Monday, with rain forcing them indoors, the students met at the offices of the Detroit Hispanic Development Center in southwest Detroit. As part of the day's studies they heard from Stephen Ward, an associate professor of Afroamerican and African studies at the University of Michigan.

Ward's message, at least in part, was that these students are part of a long line of young people who stood up in an attempt to get a better education. As he mentioned the HBO film Walkout, which tells the true story of protests held by students in East Los Angeles in 1968, Gafford said: "We've watched that movie so many times I know it by heart."

"No matter what, we're still here learning," Gafford, a remarkably composed and well-spoken young woman, told News Hits. "This is what we are fighting for. This is what we are sticking to."


News Hits is written by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected].


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