Separate and Unequal Is Not Okay, Students Tell Chancellor Fariña

Alex Ellefson May 1, 2015

A group of Bronx students confronted New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña at a public forum on Wednesday for allowing the Department of Education to violate civil rights laws by not providing equal access to sports for students of color.

Fatou Boye, a junior at International Community High School (ICHS) in the Bronx, drew roaring applause from the audience when she addressed the Panel on Educational Policy meeting in the Lower East Side. She admonished the Public Schools Athletic League (PSAL), the arm of the DOE that oversees school sports, for awarding dozens of teams to white students in Staten Island while more than 17,000 students of color go to high schools without any sports.

“Separate and equal is bad. Separate and unequal is worse,” she said, referencing the 1964 Civil Rights Act that outlawed segregation in the United States. “Your PSAL is separate and unequal.”

New York has one of the most segregated school systems in the country, according to a report released last year by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. At the same time, resources are not being distributed equally. Schools with greater numbers of white students receive more funding for arts, music and sports, according to numerous reports from civil rights groups and the city comptroller’s office.

The students, who all go to the same Bronx high school, have been demonstrating outside City Hall every Wednesday since March 25, when they were booted from a City Council budget hearing for participating in a protest directed at the chancellor. Their dean, David Garcia-Rosen, was removed from his position and sent to a DOE detention center for helping his students organize the demonstration. The high school’s counselor was also suspended and the media arts teacher was fired for participating without approval from the department, even though all the students had signed permission slips from their parents.

This Wednesday’s panel meeting, which provided time for public comments, was the first opportunity for the students to speak directly to the chancellor.  After the students finished testifying, Fariña promised to arrange a meeting at their school with officials from the DOE.

“I heard you,” she said. “But we also want to make sure that any teams we have are run by people who are authorized or insured. There’s a lot of things that go into these decisions.”

Guitti Muhammed, a junior at ICHS, said he was not satisfied with Fariña’s response. He explained the students had already met with DOE officials many times and were only given empty promises.

“She says she’s going to bring some representatives to our school. It’s not what we wanted to hear,” he said. “It’s not just been a couple of weeks or months. No. We’ve been doing this for years and years.”

In 2011, with the help of Garcia-Rosen, students at ICHS founded the Small Schools Athletic League (SSAL) so they could compete against students at other schools that had been denied teams by the PSAL. During the Bloomberg era, large public schools with low test scores and graduation rates were closed and replaced by smaller schools. Most of these school closings occurred in black and Latino neighborhoods.  The PSAL, Garcia-Rosen said, is structured to award teams to larger schools, which are usually located in areas with more white students.

Last year, the SSAL supported 90 teams from 42 different schools and secured $825,000 from the City Council to keep the league open. However, the DOE announced in September that those funds had been inexplicably given to the PSAL in order to create its own small schools league.

Since then, ICHS students lost many of the school’s most popular sports teams, including their prized co-ed soccer team, which had won three SSAL championships. Out of the 176 teams that were scheduled to play in the SSAL this year, only 27 remain.

Many of the students explained to the chancellor how the SSAL had changed their lives by keeping them out of trouble, boosting their attendance, increasing their grades and giving them hope for sports scholarships that could lead to a college education.

In his testimony, Muhammed explained that the SSAL’s grade and attendance requirements encouraged him to put more effort into his schoolwork.

“I remember I used to wake up late and go to school. I would go to school at second period or third period,” he said. “If you wanted to join soccer, you have to make sure your attendance is very good. You have to make sure you come to school on time or you’re not going to play. So for that, I had to make a lot of changes in my life.“

Muhammed and the other ICHS students were aware that while they were giving their testimony, hundreds of protestors in Union Square were calling for justice for Freddie Gray, who died from a severed spine while in police custody in Baltimore.

Many of the students invoked the civil rights struggle in the United States during their testimony and highlighted the racial disparity in school sports as an example of how the promise of ending segregation has not been fulfilled.

“When we see white people getting more opportunities than us, it seems like Martin Luther King did not do nothing,” said Abiloulaye Diagne, a high school junior. “We want to have the same rights as white students and the same opportunities.”

Garcia-Rosen has filed a civil rights complaint against the DOE for violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination for programs receiving federal financial assistance.

Earlier this year, the federal Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found the city’s school system to be violating Title IX of the Civil Rights Act for failing to provide equal sports opportunities to girls.

The National Women’s Law Center filed the complaint in 2010. Earlier this month, the center published a report analyzing segregated school systems across the country, which found that girls in minority schools in New York State had far fewer opportunities to play sports than girls at heavily white schools.

Garcia-Rosen said that providing more opportunities for students of color to play sports should be the easiest problem to solve when addressing the issue of inequality in public schools. And the SSAL proved it could be done.

“All they have to do is provide students of color with every opportunity they provide white students. It’s that simple,” he said.

But he added he was disturbed by the silence from the other members on the panel.

“Look, that stage is not just the chancellor,” he said. “It’s filled with the mayoral appointees too. And it’s filled with all the reps from the borough presidents. I would be very curious why no one else on that stage had anything to say tonight.”


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