One of the first things 17-year-old Abiboulaye Diagne shows friends who visit his home is the collection of gleaming championship medals hanging on the hat rack in his room. Diagne immigrated to New York from Senegal two years ago and played as midfielder on his school soccer team.
“When I show them all the medals they are like, ‘Wow, you’re here only two years and you have all these medals?’” he said. “Winning made me proud.”
But this year, Diagne’s championship-winning soccer team is gone. It was eliminated along with the baseball and softball teams at his South Bronx high school, where almost all the students are immigrants from Africa or South America.
Diagne and his teammates at International Community High School (ICHS) want their sports teams back. They are holding the New York City Department of Education responsible and argue that the branch of the DOE that oversees interscholastic sports, the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL), has violated civil rights laws by not giving students of color the same opportunities to play sports as their white peers.
In March, Diagne and nearly 100 other ICHS students staged a protest directed at Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña just as she was about to speak at a City Council budget hearing. From the balcony of the council chamber, they raised black-gloved fists in the air, referencing the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics, and unfurled a large white banner that declared: “#civilrightsmatter.”
For the students and the three educators who helped organize the protest, this was an act of civil disobedience: They had defied an order from the DOE warning them to not hold the demonstration. The students were told if they missed school to attend the hearing, they might receive an unexcused absence and a call home, even though their parents had all signed permission slips allowing them to go. The three educators who helped organize and supervise the protest, the DOE warned, risked “disciplinary action which may include dismissal from employment.”
David Garcia-Rosen, the dean at ICHS, said he and his colleagues were aware that they were putting their careers on the line.
“The three of us said: if we lose our jobs, we lose our jobs. But we’re not going to continue to cash DOE paychecks every two weeks knowing that it’s a paycheck doused in civil rights violations,” Garcia-Rosen told The Indypendent.
The day after the protest, Garcia-Rosen and the school’s counselor, Maria Damato, were called into the principal’s office, where they were told they had been relieved of their positions while the DOE conducted an investigation. The media arts teacher, Ralph Figaro, who was hired through an outside agency without any union protection, was fired.
For Garcia-Rosen, this is one of many clashes with the DOE. He has filed a civil rights complaint against the New York City school system. His school-related expenditures have been subjected to an audit, and he says a high-ranking DOE executive called him a “Marxist” for suggesting that sports funding be distributed more equitably.
In 2011, after his requests for baseball and cricket teams were denied by the PSAL, Garcia-Rosen founded the Small School Athletics League (SSAL), so that students at his school, which has fewer than 400 students, could play sports and compete with other teams. He found principals at seven other schools to contribute money from their budgets to pay for equipment and jerseys. Within three years, the league’s membership exploded to include 90 teams from 42 small high schools.
Garcia-Rosen said he witnessed an extraordinary transformation in some of the students who participated in the SSAL. Kids who had dropped out of school suddenly appeared in his office asking if they could join the new baseball team. He pointed out that the PSAL would never have allowed those students to play baseball because the league had strict behavior and attendance polices.
“The SSAL had such a profound affect on the most at-risk students who the PSAL continues to slam the door on,” he said. “We didn’t care if you’d been absent for the past three weeks, we didn’t care if you’d been suspended, we didn’t care if you’d been arrested and we didn’t care if you dropped out.”
Instead, all students were eligible to sign up for sports. But once they joined a team, they were expected to turn in signatures from all their teachers to prove they were completing their schoolwork, passing their tests and showing up for class.
Eighteen-year-old Guitti Muhammed, a junior at ICHS, said that before he joined the soccer team, he would sleep late and miss his morning classes. He wasn’t keeping up with his homework and he would fight with other students.
“I was a troublemaker,” he said. “But playing was really important to me. Everybody has a passion. My passion is playing sports.”
The SSAL’s success got noticed. In 2012, the PSAL’s executive director, Donald Douglas, called Garcia-Rosen to discuss the new league. Douglas asked for a study to assess the need for interscholastic sports at small high schools. Eight months later, Garcia-Rosen produced a 17-page report for the PSAL that compared data from the DOE about student enrollment with information from the PSAL about the distribution of sports teams.
His report revealed startling disparities in the way the PSAL awards sports teams: Neighborhoods with the highest concentrations of poverty and students of color had the least number of PSAL-funded sports teams.
In Staten Island, where almost half of public school students are white, 95 percent of students go to a public high school with at least 20 sports teams. Meanwhile, only 32 percent of students in the Bronx, where white students account for barely 3 percent of total enrollment, go to a high school with that many sports programs. Across the city, almost one-third of the students who attended the most segregated schools, where they had no white classmates, had no opportunities to play sports.
City Councilmember Andy King, who represents a district in the northeast Bronx, said that students of color were being deprived of important opportunities by not having access to sports. After excelling in sports at Evander Childs High School in the Bronx, King attended Midwestern State University in Texas on a basketball scholarship before transferring to William Paterson College in New Jersey, where he led his school to three straight conference championships.
“As a high schooler, I enjoyed playing sports,” King told The Indypendent. “And it taught me so many things, especially a value system that young people need growing up.”
And with college education becoming increasingly unaffordable, especially for students from low-income families, King said it was important to provide students with opportunities, like sports, that could encourage them to seek scholarships and consider going to college.
“We ask people to take higher levels of education. But not everyone can afford higher education, especially as it has become so expensive,” said King. “So how do you say we want people to be smarter and get more education but then we chop down the roads that can get them there?”
New York City has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, according to a study done last year by the University of California at Los Angeles’s Civil Rights Project. And the disparities in race and class are not limited to sports. Last year, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer released a report that found school districts with the least access to art education were concentrated in low-income, minority neighborhoods.
The Problem With Small Schools
Garcia-Rosen attributes some of the disparities in sports and art programs to the small schools movement that began almost 20 years ago and was accelerated under the Bloomberg administration. The city has dismantled many of its large, comprehensive high schools that were once located in low-income, minority neighborhoods. The comprehensive schools, like Evander Childs, which closed in 2008, were deemed to be too big and impersonal to meet students’ individual needs. Yet, these high schools also had the large student bodies and economies of scale that made it possible to offer a wide array of extracurricular activities.
The small schools have filled the void often with fewer than 100 students per grade. International Community High School, which is co-located with a middle school, has fewer than 400 students. Garcia-Rosen said that the PSAL, which has existed for more than a century, is structured to award sports teams to large schools with a traditional campus.
“What clearly wasn’t taken into account was that you can’t really have a high school if you don’t have a high school facility,” said Garcia-Rosen. “And when you concentrate these small schools in segregated areas, now you’ve created a separate, segregated school system. And you wind up with separate and unequal.”
Garcia-Rosen said that the PSAL responded to his report on inequality by offering to give his school sports teams, even though they had denied his request for sports teams almost two years earlier. They also offered him a job at the PSAL.
“It was infuriating. I never wanted a job at the PSAL,” said Garcia-Rosen. “It seems like if you make enough noise or if you have a politician behind you, then you get teams. Otherwise, you can’t even get [the PSAL] to call you back.”
Garcia-Rosen rejected the PSAL’s job offer and instead began lobbying the City Council to fund the SSAL. Teams in the SSAL had been supported with money from their principal’s budgets, but that model wasn’t sustainable or fair. That money could have gone to hiring new teachers or buying supplies.
In June 2014, his effort appeared to bear fruit. The City Council had agreed to provide $825,000 in the final city budget agreement to go toward sustaining the SSAL. And the nonprofit A PLUS Youth Program had promised to provide matching funds. However, just as the new school year was about to begin, the DOE unexpectedly announced that the City Council’s money had been given to the PSAL, in order to create its own small schools athletic league.
After it became clear last fall that the SSAL would not receive any money from the city, A PLUS Youth Program also walked away, and the SSAL was forced to cancel its upcoming season. The students at ICHS lost their treasured soccer, baseball and softball teams.
The PSAL used the City Council’s $825,000 to rebrand two of its existing leagues, which have served as a transitional stage for new teams entering the PSAL. The PSAL’s developmental league became SSAL Developmental and its Transfer League was renamed the Multiple Pathways League and given modified academic eligibility requirements in order to give more students a chance to play.
According to a DOE spokesperson, SSAL Developmental has added 109 new teams this year and is focused on “catering to the unique needs of small schools.”
But the teams awarded to ICHS were not nearly as popular. Instead of baseball and softball, they received volleyball and track and field. Instead of soccer, the PSAL gave them table tennis. And the new sports teams were all scheduled to compete in the fall, which meant that the students at ICHS had no sports to play for half the year.
Out of the 90 teams that played last year in the SSAL, only 27 are still active after being absorbed by the PSAL.
Even some of the students who wanted to play on the new teams said they were not happy the PSAL had eliminated sports their peers wanted to play.
“The sport I like to do is track,” said 18-year-old IHCS student Shaffiou Assoumanou, who participated in the March protest at City Hall. “But most people in our school, the sports that they like are baseball and basketball and soccer. Track really does not matter to them. So even though I have track, I’m not just standing up for myself, there are still some students who don’t have any sports.”
After the students learned that the DOE had pulled their teachers out of school for helping them organize their demonstration, scores of students participated a walkout and traveled down to the DOE offices in Lower Manhattan, where they stood for hours in the rain. No one from the DOE came out to speak with the protesting students.
Since then, they have gathered outside City Hall every Wednesday after school. The sound of their plastic bucket drums thunders across City Hall Park while the students hold up their big white banner for city officials who walk by.
“If it’s raining, it’s snowing, whatever is happening, even if there’s a hurricane, we’re going to head out here and protest because I believe in civil disobedience,” said ICHS student Fatou Boye. “I’m not fighting for myself, I’m fighting for those people who are going to come next. Because Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, they fought for the next generation”
When City Councilman Jumaane Williams (D-East Flatbush) stopped and chatted with the demonstrators, he told The Indypendent he expected the City Council’s $825,000 was going directly to the SSAL.
“We’re being told that somehow the funding went to the PSAL and never trickled back down to the kids we wanted it to get to. If that’s the case, it’s pretty troubling,” he said.
Williams noted that at the same time the students were demonstrating outside City Hall, thousands of New Yorkers were assembling in Union Square to protest the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered a fatal spine injury while in the custody of Baltimore police.
“This is not just an education or a sports issue, this is about inequitable resources in many things,” Williams said. “Probably the only thing that’s not inequitable, is the distribution of police. I think, if we were more equitable with other resources, we wouldn’t need the police resources as much.”
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