Teachers Suspended for Helping Students Fight for Their Right to Play

Students from the International Community High School in the Bronx kicked around a soccer ball outside City Hall on April 22, reminiscing about practicing with their school’s league before a lack of funding dissipated their team in the fall of 2014. Chanting and handing out leaflets to passersby, high school senior Fatou Boye explained that sports can unify and motivate students, while providing an avenue to success for those whose athletic skills attract college recruiters. Cutting access to sports, Boye and other student activists say, cuts opportunity.


“When there’s sports, the kids are so busy that they won’t have time to do anything violent. They avoid pregnancy. They need good grades to stay on their teams, so they come to school every day,” Boye said.

Boye and the other protesting students are frustrated by their own limited athletic opportunities and the shocking racial disparity of sports access in New York City public schools. According to Public School Athletic League and Department of Education data, white students are far more likely than students of color to attend schools with sports teams.

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Junior Shaffiou Assoumanou, who plays soccer and likes track, said access to school sports should not be determined by race. “I got involved in this because I think that we are people and we deserve the same opportunities and also our rights matter,” Assaumanou said, “It’s not fair that we’re going to school and we’re not getting sports, but then there are schools with more white people that have more than 30 teams. Black and Latino students also have the right to have sports at school.”

Fighting Back

With the help of school dean David Garcia-Rosen, students from the International Community High School have formed NYCLetEmPlay, a movement to make sports programs more equitable at New York City public schools.

The students of NYCLetEmPlay have been demonstrating for over a year, calling for more equitable access to sports in public schools. This week, they have another demand: the reinstatement of three teachers who were suspended at the end of last month for helping students organize and accompanying them to protest.

On March 25, Garcia-Rosen and college counselor Maria Damato accompanied students to protest at a NYC City Council budget meeting. Media arts teacher Ralph Figaro, who was working with students on documentary projects, filmed the protests. The following day, Garcia-Rosen and Damato were handed letters indicating that they would be suspended pending an investigation, and Figaro, an independent contractor, was fired.

Over 100 students protested the dismissal of their teachers by walking out of school. Garcia-Rosen says that “others attempted to leave but teachers and administration locked and blocked the classroom doors.” The students did a sit-in the following day in front of the school building, and later in the hallway. Garcia-Rosen and Damato are currently posted at a detention center while the investigation is pending.

Garcia-Rosen has been pushing for change for some time. After a 2009 report indicated that the city’s schools are the most segregated in the country, he used the report’s data to analyze access to athletic programs in New York City’s 147 most segregated schools.

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According to data Garcia-Rosen pulled from the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) and NYC Department of Education (DOE), schools with 99-100% students of color average seven sports teams each, compared to an average of 18 teams among schools with 21-84% white students. That means, on average, the city’s whitest schools more than double the number of sports teams in schools with the most students of color.

The data shows that more than 17,000 non-white New York City students have no access to sports at all, and more than 36,000 students of color who do attend schools with sports have far fewer options at their disposal than do students at schools with a whiter population.

The racial disparity in sports access is even more drastic among girls’ teams. High schools with more students of color have an average of three girls' teams each, compared to nine girls' teams in high schools with more white students. This February, a federal investigation found the NYC DOE in violation of Title IX for denying female students equal access to high school sports.

Garcia-Rosen believes the discrepancies in sports opportunities by race amounts to a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which requires that “all students, regardless of race, color or national origin, have comparable access to the diverse range of courses, programs, and extracurricular activities.” So he filed a complaint with the US DOE Office of Civil Rights. “We are hopeful our complaint will be the first of many that will hold the DOE accountable for creating separate and unequal school system that leaves students of color with less resources, opportunities, and access than their white peers,” he said.

History of Unequal Access

Garcia-Rosen says that the dissolution of sports programs in public schools began about 20 years ago, when the Bloomberg administration championed the movement to close large community schools in favor of smaller, co-located schools. The PSAL, the only DOE-sanctioned provider of sports in public schools, grants teams to schools that apply for them through a nontransparent granting process, by which they can approve or deny requests for teams at will without providing justification for their decisions.

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“Since that time, the PSAL has made almost no adjustments to meet the unique needs of small schools. While some high schools that are on campuses combined to form campus teams, schools not on campuses were left out and the PSAL did nothing to adjust to this new high school landscape. They instead focused on adding new sports and giving them to the wealthiest whitest schools in the city,” Garcia-Rosen said.

Recognizing the need for sports opportunities in small schools, Garcia-Rosen created the Small School Athletic League (SSAL) in 2011. The league, which was funded by the school principals, created soccer, baseball and volleyball teams at more than 16 schools. When PSAL absorbed the SSAL at the start of this school year in what Garcia-Rosen describes as a “closed door deal between the speaker [of the DOE] and the chancellor,” it failed to provide funding for many of the teams that had been included in Garcia-Rosen’s program—including the soccer team at the International Community High School.

Garcia-Rosen says, “Last year our motto was investigate the problem (PSAL) and fund the solution (SSAL). What they did was fund the problem to take over and destroy the solution.”

Students say they have been protesting consistently since the start of the school year, despite warnings from school officials. According to Garcia-Rosen, administrators warned students that their participation in the protests could prevent them from graduating. He says the school also contacted parents, urging them to discourage their children from protesting.

“Almost all the parents are from different countries and almost none of them speak English, so when they hear an administrator from the school call them and say this is unsafe, this is unauthorized, this is crazy, don’t do it, that message holds a lot of weight and so it’s definitely iced a lot of kids,”Garcia-Rosen said.

Shaffiou Assoumanou, who migrated from West Africa one year ago, had to rush home from Wednesday’s protest before his father finished work. “My father told me to stop protesting because he’s afraid that if I keep protesting, I could get in trouble because I’m new in this country,” he explained.

Fatou Boye, whose family migrated from Senegal four years ago, says her father has expressed concern about her participation in the protests: “He always says how important education is and he worries sometimes about the protest getting in the way of my education. But he believes in me, and I tell him, I believe in civil disobedience, so if you really love me and trust me, let me fight for this."

Boye, who is one of the student leaders of NYC LetEmPlay, says threats from the school will not keep students from being heard. She tells those who oppose the students, “If Martin Luther King didn’t lead the movement for civil rights in 1964, we wouldn’t even be here today, so we need to continue the movement.” 

Maria Damato believes that the DOE has the resources to provide equitable sports programs to all students within smaller schools. She said, “I actually like small schools. I don’t want to work in a school with 5,000 kids. I don’t think it’s the small schools movement that’s the problem; it’s the DOE’s inability to adapt to it. It just seems like common sense that when the schools are broken up, the system needs to change.”

NYC LetEmPlay proposes alternatives to the current policy stifling equal access. Among the group’s demands are including equitable sharing of DOE-owned fields, courts and permits, and a minimum of six PSAL teams of their choice to each DOE high school. Garcia-Rosen explains, “since 44 possible teams exist, then every kid should have access to all of 44 those programs, even if it means that creating a new system.”

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Garcia-Rosen notes that sports are not the only programs disproportionately denied to students of color in the wake of the small-schools initiative. “This sports conversation is an entry point into a conversation about what segregated schools mean in New York City,” said Garcia-Rosen, adding that kids are "stuffed into these buildings that are not made for high schools" and “can’t offer what a high school should offer.”

“Segregated schools have the worst facilities,” Garcia-Rosen said. “What these kids are doing is opening up a conversation for what we’ve done to our kids over the past 15 years.”

The elimination of school bands, choruses and Advanced Placement (AP) courses are just a few other examples of the false promises the small school movement has turned into disappearing opportunities.

“I’m hopeful that this fight and the success of this fight is going to open up all of these other conversations and finally solve the disaster the Bloomberg people created,” Garcia-Rosen said.

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