The Destructive Process of Banishing Students to 'Alternative Schools'
In October 2014, less than two months after entering North Augusta High School in Aiken County, South Carolina, Logan Rewis paused to drink from a fountain in the hallway between periods. As he straightened up, water fell from his mouth onto the shoe of his social studies teacher, Matt Branon, who was standing nearby. Logan says it was an accident, but Branon thought Logan had spat at him.
“My bad,” the 15-year-old with bushy sandy-brown hair and blue eyes says he told Branon after the teacher confronted him.
Branon, who is also the school’s baseball coach, was incensed. “Freaking disgusting,” he shouted at Logan as the teen walked away. Branon pursued Logan and grabbed the freshman by his backpack.
“Get your freaking hands off me,” Logan recalls yelling. School officials say he used a different “f” word.
Though Branon had arguably escalated the conflict, he wasn’t disciplined — but Logan was. In a decision that changed the course of his education and life, the school district banished Logan to its alternative school, the Center for Innovative Learning at Pinecrest.
The word “alternative” implies a choice. But in an era when the freedom to pick your school is trumpeted by advocates and politicians, students don’t choose the alternative schools to which districts send them for breaking the rules: They’re sentenced to them. Of 39 state education departments that responded to a ProPublica survey last year, 29, or about three-quarters, said school districts could transfer students involuntarily to alternative programs for disciplinary reasons.
Like Logan, thousands of students are involuntarily reassigned to these schools each year, often for a seemingly minor offense, and never get back on track, a ProPublica investigation has found. Alternative schools are often located in crumbling buildings or trailers, with classes taught largely by computers and little in the way of counseling services or extracurricular activities.
The forced placements have persisted even though the Obama administration in 2014 told schools they should suspend, expel or transfer students to alternative schools only as a last resort — and warned them that they risked a federal civil rights investigation if their disciplinary actions reflected discrimination based on race. Federal data shows that black and Hispanic students are often punished more than white students for similar violations.
Moreover, despite legal protections afforded students with disabilities, a disproportionate number of those exiled in some districts have special education plans — like Logan, who had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other learning problems.
School administrators “hang these children out to dry,” says Logan’s mother, Lisa Woodward. “They don’t want nothing else to do with them.”
Now, the Trump administration is being pressed to view such removals more favorably. In November, a group of teachers and conservative education advocates met with aides to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to express concerns about the 2014 guidance. The group said the Obama-era approach made schools less safe, allowing disruptive students to hijack classrooms.
That meeting has raised fears among civil rights advocates that the Trump administration will rescind the guidance, prompting schools to increase the number of children excluded from regular classrooms. “We’re deeply concerned this administration is not committed to protecting the civil rights of students,” says Elizabeth Olsson, senior policy associate for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. She cited reports that DeVos may scrap a rule aimed at preventing schools from unnecessarily placing minority students in special education.
A federal education spokesman on Nov. 29 declined to comment on the issue.
To be sure, many students are sent to alternative schools for major offenses involving drugs, alcohol, weapons or violence. But others are forced to go for reasons that include rudeness, using their cellphones at inappropriate times, or — in about half of the states ProPublica surveyed — nondisciplinary problems such as bad grades. In states like Florida, students who fall academically have been pushed to transfer to alternative schools as a way to game the state’s accountability system. Pennsylvania law lets school officials relegate students to that state’s Alternative Education for Disruptive Youth program for showing “disregard for school authority.” In Aiken, about 40 percent of transfers in 2014-2015, the year Logan was reassigned, were for lesser offenses, including 13 for using profanity, 27 for truancy, 28 for not following an adult’s instructions and 18 for showing disrespect.
AASA, The School Superintendents Association — which has at times fiercely defended local administrators’ discretion in handling disruptive students — says alternative schools should not typically be used as a disciplinary placement for non-serious offenses.
“We don’t want to send a student there because they didn’t take their hat off or they drank poorly from the water fountain, or they’re not as mannered as we’d like them to be,” says Bryon Joffe, the association’s project director for education and youth and development. “What we don’t want our alternative schools to be is a place to put kids we’d rather not have in class.”
Aiken County Schools attorney William Burkhalter Jr. says that, under the direction of a new superintendent, Sean Alford, the school system reduced its expulsions, suspensions, and involuntary alternative school transfers in recent years. Still, district officials were acting within their rights in Logan’s case, he says. “He denies it but he spit a huge amount of water on this teacher,” says Burkhalter, who didn’t witness the incident himself. “His shoes, pant legs, whatever. It was gross.” (During a disciplinary hearing, a district official described the incident by saying: “The student spit water on a teacher's shoe as he left the water fountain.”)
Burkhalter says Branon has worked for the district since 2012 without receiving any write-ups or reprimands. “The principal has had no problems and says he is a team player, a willing participant in anything he is asked to help with and a solid guy,” Burkhalter wrote in an email. He quoted the principal as saying, “‘I love having him on the staff.”
Branon did not respond to emails or phone messages from ProPublica.
Discipline wasn’t the original mission of alternative schools. They emerged in the late 1960s as less competitive, more child-centered learning environments that aimed to offer flexible instruction for kids who weren’t thriving in traditional classrooms. But within two decades, their role evolved as school districts began to see them as places to warehouse students who had broken zero-tolerance policies. Under those policies, which were based on the notion that schools could only keep order by refusing to tolerate any potentially unsafe behavior, even first-time or minor incidents were more likely to result in an expulsion or suspension. When students challenged their removal, some courts ordered schools to find a place to educate them — fueling a proliferation of alternative classrooms through the 1990s and 2000s. Even as zero-tolerance policies have fallen out of fashion, involuntary placements in alternative schools for disciplinary reasons have persisted, with districts such as Miami recently introducing “success centers” for students who otherwise might have been suspended.
Tasked with educating roughly half a million of the nation’s most vulnerable students, alternative schools generally lack academic rigor. Barbara Fedders, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied the schools, says some districts assign their worst teachers to alternative classrooms, and students may not even receive textbooks. “They aren’t given anything that makes schools schools,” Fedders says. “There’s no clubs, no sports.”
Many students become discouraged and drop out. While just 6 percent of regular schools have graduation rates below 50 percent, ProPublica’s analysis found, nearly half of alternative schools do.
“There is an enormous change in the quality of education that the student has a shot at when they’re moved from regular school to alternative school,” says Derek Black, a University of South Carolina law professor who wrote a book on school discipline.
A middle child, Logan grew up with two sisters in North Augusta, a few miles from the Georgia border. When he was a toddler, his mother and father split up, and she married his stepfather. She worked in customer service at a car dealership; his stepfather was in construction, later taking a job as an automotive technician.
Logan had little contact with his father, and his relationship with his stepfather was turbulent. When he wasn’t in school, he enjoyed swimming in nearby lakes or the Savannah River and displayed a knack for hands-on tasks. For a time, he and a friend liked to fix up and re-paint old bicycles. As he became a teenager, he wore shirts with the Polo insignia, an ever-present baseball hat and a wide smile that hinted of mischief.
Because of his ADHD, which was diagnosed in third grade, Logan struggled to focus on schoolwork. He had difficulty reading and sometimes acted impulsively. He could get boisterous, wasn’t great at following directions and mouthed off to adults who called him out in front of peers. He took medicine for his attention disorder for several years, but Woodward stopped it when he was in seventh grade because she thought the side effects made him act up more.
He was repeatedly disciplined for outbursts in class, disrespect, swearing, silliness and horsing around with other students. As the incidents piled up, Logan became acquainted with the district’s alternative school, the Center for Innovative Learning at Pinecrest. Located a couple of miles from downtown Aiken, the low-slung brick building has long grass, a chain-link fence and a “No Trespassing” sign out back. With a fluctuating enrollment that sometimes exceeds 200 students in grades three and up, the center sits in a neighborhood beset by crime, with pockets of boarded up homes and unkempt yards.
In sixth grade, school officials sent Logan to Pinecrest for more than two months after he was accused of pushing another student. The next year, he returned for about a month for repeatedly forgetting his gym clothes. His grades suffered each time.
For high school, his mother thought he should go to a small charter school, where he could receive individualized attention, rather than North Augusta. One of Aiken’s larger high schools, North Augusta has 1,500 students and a sprawling campus in an older subdivision dotted with midcentury brick ranch homes. But Logan assured her he would be fine. He was already planning to pursue a vocational track after his freshman year and had his eye on a welding program. As he left middle school, educators created an Individualized Education Program for him that, among other things, said teachers at North Augusta should first remind him of the rules and give him a chance to comply before issuing a citation and should avoid embarrassing him by criticizing him in public.
Logan’s first couple of months at North Augusta went relatively well. He made B’s in Algebra 1 and mostly kept out of trouble. He did rack up tardies, repeatedly failing to get from one end of the school to the other in time for class. Another teacher chastised him for saying he didn’t have a book when he actually did. But his mother had met with his teachers and they all talked with Logan about hurrying up. He promised to.
Then came the water fountain incident. Afterwards, an assistant principal called Woodward, telling her Logan had spat on a teacher and could be arrested for assault if charges were pressed. “I was like, ‘What in the world has happened to my child?’” she recalls. “Because it’s not out of character for him to mouth off at somebody, but for him to spit on somebody, that was out of character.” She was so upset she hardly spoke to Logan on the drive home. That night, he fled from the house and wandered their working-class neighborhood alone, while she anxiously waited up.
When they finally talked over what happened, Woodward says she was crestfallen. “It broke my heart that I had reacted the way I did,” she says.
The school referred Logan’s case to a disciplinary tribunal, a group of retired educators who determined punishment for violations of the district’s code of conduct. Branon went to great lengths to bolster his account, collecting statements from nine students about the incident. Most agreed that Logan spat on the shoe of “Coach Branon,” but couldn’t say for sure whether it was intentional.
At a hearing a few days later, Woodward pleaded for leniency.
“He has progressively gotten better,” Woodward told tribunal members, according to a recording of the hearing obtained by ProPublica. “He's not a bad kid, he's a good kid.” But the chairwoman told Logan his behavior would not be tolerated. “You ain't never going to win being disrespectful to people in charge,” the chairwoman told Logan. The preponderance of evidence supported that he spat and cursed at the teacher, she said as the hearing closed, but even “if you didn't, then it's a lesson that giving the impression that you did sometimes can be just as painful as if you did it. You got it?” She warned him that if he came back before the tribunal for another offense, it would likely expel him.
The panel sentenced him to a short-term stint at Pinecrest, which is usually four to five weeks. However, while Woodward was registering him at the alternative school, she says school officials at his old high school met to talk about his IEP without her. At this meeting, despite the tribunal’s recommendation, school officials decided Logan should stay at Pinecrest longer — for at least nine to 10 weeks. “He was doing so good, then because of this little incident that they blew out of proportion, they basically kicked him while he was down,” Woodward says.
School administrators “did not feel the mother ever understood what they were putting up with and how much they wanted Logan to succeed,” attorney Burkhalter says.
Pinecrest was much smaller than North Augusta High, and Logan knew some of the other students there. His mother usually drove him, even though the route took her an hour out of her way and she feared jeopardizing her job at the dealership.
The Center for Innovative Learning was anything but. While the small classes at Pinecrest took pressure off Logan, he wasn’t learning much. His computer-based courses in social studies and science required him to absorb screens and screens of text. “There was a lot of stuff to read and I wasn’t really good at reading,” he recalls. Some kids figured out a way to get around the school’s academic software to surf outside websites, such as Facebook, he says. Other classes taught by teachers were too easy for a high school freshman, he says — his math class spent the period doing multiplication with calculators.
“They didn’t teach me anything at all,” Logan says. His grades in the computer-based courses tanked.
States and school districts have created a patchwork of rules on who should attend public alternative schools and why. Some set a higher bar than others. In Delaware, students must face expulsion or “seriously” violate the district discipline code before being sent to alternative programs. In Austin, Texas, students who commit one of a list of offenses — including felonies, assaults with injuries and marijuana or alcohol possession — must be transferred to alternative classrooms.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools turned to alternative schools after facing pressure from parents and activists to reduce the number of students it suspends and expels. In 2015, the district opened 10 “Student Success Centers” for students who in the past would have been sent home on suspension. Under the district’s plan, such students would report to the centers and receive schoolwork from their teachers — so they didn’t fall behind — along with character education and counseling, if needed. The move dramatically reduced the number of off-campus suspensions. But news media and civil rights advocates soon reported that many students weren’t showing up at the success centers or, if they did, schoolwork from their current classes often didn’t arrive. “Student Success Centers are out-of-school suspensions by another name,” the Advancement Project and a student advocacy group said about their findings in an October report.
A Miami-Dade district spokesman said the centers have improved as a result of recommendations from a task force that includes administrators, teachers, counselors and parent-teacher groups. “We will continue to use feedback from all stakeholders to inform decisions,” the spokesman wrote in an email.
Regardless of the formal eligibility rules for alternative schools, local officials are commonly afforded wide discretion. That, critics say, allows bias to creep in.
In Pennsylvania, a complaint filed by education advocates with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in 2013 alleges the state’s alternative schools are substandard educationally and disproportionately composed of students who have disabilities or are African American. The percentage of students with disabilities sent to the state’s alternative programs was nearly triple the state average — making up 44 percent of the alternative population in the 2012 school year, according to the complaint, which is pending. In 82 Pennsylvania school districts, disabled students made up half or more of the alternative population, with one district assigning only disabled students to the programs. Between 2008 and 2011, African-American students were placed in alternative programs at a rate more than double that of the general student population.
Charges of bias in alternative placements have also surfaced in the largest school district in Mississippi — DeSoto County Schools just south of the Tennessee border. Cynthia Lewis says that her daughter A’riauna McMillian’s involuntary transfer to an alternative school last school year in DeSoto County was an unduly harsh punishment that set the African-American teen back academically.
Toward the end of her freshman year, A’riauna told ProPublica, she took out her cellphone while in the ladies’ room to use the Snapchat app. Then she dangled the phone over a stall she thought was occupied by a friend she had been goofing around with. The phone’s light flashed as a warning that it was about to start recording. A’riauna’s friend noticed it and yelled that she was in a different stall. A’riauna says she snatched her phone back and started hitting delete, just in case. When the girl in the stall, who was white, came out, A’riauna let her look at the phone — and scroll through A’riauna’s Snapchat feed — to check that nothing was posted or saved. The girl complained to administrators anyway.
A’riauna was a good student who had never been in trouble before. The school not only suspended her for three days but also referred her to a disciplinary hearing to consider additional punishment. The hearing officer ordered A’riauna to spend 30 school days in the district’s alternative school for “acts which threaten the safety or well-being of others,” “possession or use of obscene, immoral, or offensive materials” and three lesser offenses, including having a cellphone. Lewis says the district’s code doesn’t recommend an alternative placement for a first offense on such a charge. “I felt like they were railroading her,” says Lewis, who has worked as a bus driver and substitute teacher for the district. She worried her daughter would fall behind in biology and English — classes that had mandatory state tests that spring.
When A’riauna entered the DeSoto County Alternative Center that fall, she was scared. “It was like, ‘Oh my God Ma, it’s like they’re in prison,’” she told Lewis. She was subjected to pat-downs each morning that included being required to shake her bra to show she wasn’t carrying contraband. She told her mother that on most days she would do worksheets and spend much of the rest of her time coloring pictures with crayons and markers. When her stint at the alternative center was over, her mother moved her to another high school, fearing that her old one wouldn’t treat her fairly. A’riauna found she needed extra help from teachers to get back on track. The transition was difficult. “She was very depressed in the beginning,” her mother says. With teachers’ help and hard work, she managed to raise her grades, Lewis says.
Working with the Advancement Project, the same group that criticized the Miami Success Centers, Lewis and other DeSoto parents have filed complaints with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. “The punishments A’riauna received were harsher than and inconsistent with those allowed by District policy,” her mother wrote in the complaint. The parents say DeSoto’s overwhelmingly white administration and school board have routinely meted out harsher punishments to black students than white students who commit similar offenses. The complaints are pending.
Katherine Nelson, a spokeswoman for the school district, which has about 34,000 students, declined to discuss A’riauna’s experience or the parents’ complaints about bias. “We cannot discuss student discipline issues,” she said.
There’s little available data comparing how often students of different races are sent to alternative schools for the same offense. But federal data from 2012 documents racial bias in suspending students for lesser offenses, according to Joffe, of the superintendents’ association. In the 5 percent of offenses that would be considered most serious — when punishments were mandatory under state law or rule because they involved drugs, alcohol, weapons or violence — students of different races were treated similarly, Joffe says. But in the larger pool of offenses, for which officials had more discretion in deciding whether to suspend students, their decisions revealed vast racial disparities. “We know children of color face discipline more often and, more importantly, more harshly for the same sorts of infractions than their white and Asian peers,” Joffe says.
The Obama administration has told educators to avoid overly punitive responses to misbehavior by disabled students, too. In a letter to educators in 2016, it said that repeated disciplining of children with disabilities may signal that they are not receiving appropriate support in school.
Regular schools should have “release valves” for students who disturb classes — such as sending them to a guidance counselor’s office or giving them in-school suspension — that don’t involve removing them from regular school, Joffe says. Alternative schools should be reserved for students who need services beyond what a regular school can offer, he says — such as substance abuse treatment, anger management or trauma counseling.
In recent years, facing criticism for excluding students, some schools have turned to gentler approaches for managing disruptive behavior. One method, called “positive behavior supports,” involves coaching students to improve behavior through rewards, encouragement and changes in their environment and routines. Restorative justice, in which students make amends for bad behavior in lieu of harsh punishment, has also gained proponents.
The Aiken school district — which serves roughly 25,000 students, about a third of whom are African American — has not formally adopted either positive behavior supports or restorative justice. But the district has reformed both its code of conduct and the tribunal system in the past two years, with Superintendent Alford telling parents discipline should be instructive and not simply punitive. Because of the changes, fewer offenses result in automatic referrals for severe punishment. And school administrators now must first document what they did to try to help a child correct misbehavior before referring them for expulsion, suspension or an alternative school transfer. The district hired a full-time hearing officer, who has taken the place of the tribunal and has more flexibility in working with families after a disciplinary incident. The goal, Burkhalter says, was to reduce expulsions, decrease the number of hearings and appeals and give school administrators and teachers more discretion in handling discipline problems “with a view toward trying to get students back on track and not trying to push them out the door.”
While the number of students in Pinecrest has remained about the same, Burkhalter says, more of them arrive as a result of negotiated agreements between parents and the district after a disciplinary incident. Overall, he says, students are spending fewer days out of school altogether for disciplinary reasons — resulting in fewer lost instructional hours.
When he returned to North Augusta after 13 weeks at Pinecrest, Logan found himself far behind peers. “I don’t know any of this, you are way further ahead of me,” he told his math teacher. “I wasn’t doing anything like this in alternative school.” A few weeks later, Logan got caught taking his cellphone out of his pocket twice on one day — though students were supposed to leave it in their locker or a car. This time, the school recommended expulsion and held a special hearing to decide whether the violations stemmed from his disability — which would have precluded the drastic punishment. Though his mom argued that taking out his cellphone was an impulsive act directly connected to his ADHD, staff disagreed. Woodward and her son didn’t bother presenting their case at the tribunal. They had had enough. Feeling defeated, Logan dropped out of high school in the spring of 2015, at age 15.
At the time, Logan told himself and his mother that he’d just get an equivalency diploma or attend a special school for at-risk kids in Columbia. Instead, he started working right away, moving down to south Georgia to build chicken houses for his uncle’s company, which supplies them to farms. After a few months, he moved back home, taking another job repairing heating and air conditioning units — and sometimes working 55- to 60-hour weeks. His family moved across town to a subdivision, where they live in a neat brick home with a manicured lawn at the end of a cul-de-sac. Logan contributed $100 of his pay each week to household expenses.
On his days off, he shot skeet or hunted deer with family and friends or went down to the drag strip to watch the races. He reached out to his father, who had fallen on hard times. The two met and started to develop a relationship. But this time, his mother says, Logan tried to be the role model, urging his father to face his problems.
“He fell into adulthood,” Woodward says. “He’s just taken it and run with it.”
In late November, Logan decided to move back to South Georgia and join his uncle’s company, repairing the equipment in the chicken houses. He is living with his cousin near rural Reidsville, making $14 an hour. “He’s a hard worker, I think that’s what he’s got going for him,” his aunt, Dawn Floyd, says. “We couldn’t wait for him to get to us.”
Woodward says she’s proud of her son’s determination since he left school, but she still grieves that he will likely never hold a traditional high school diploma and missed out on high school rituals like the class ring ceremony, graduation and prom. “I think it hurts me more than it hurt him,” she says.
The weekend he left South Carolina for Georgia was emotional. Afterward, his mother sent him a text, telling him his younger sister missed him.
It wasn’t easy for him either, Logan texted back, but he was determined to succeed, for all their sakes. “I’m going to be a millionaire,” he wrote, so that “we won’t have to struggle ever again.”
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