Feds Investigating School District Accused Of Banning Parent In Retaliation
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — For months, a Demopolis mother of three has been fighting for change in her small-town school district, advocating for better resources for students with disabilities.
But last fall, Nikki Carter received a call that derailed her efforts, and her ability to be involved in her own children’s schooling.
On Sep. 23, the local police chief told Carter that the principal of Demopolis High had filed a no trespass order against her. She could no longer step foot on her son’s high school campus, the notice said, or else she’d be arrested.
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Then, a few days later, Carter received another notice — this time from the superintendent. Administrators banned her from all Demopolis City Schools property.
“Being a support that people need, it comes at a price,” she said. “But this right here has been the highest price.”
Suddenly, Carter was barred from carpool lines, school board meetings and parent teacher conferences. Her children had to walk to the nearby Sonic to get picked up after school. When the nurse called home, she couldn’t bring them medicine.
She missed her children’s homecoming, award ceremonies, football games and dance line practices. As May approached, she worried she wouldn’t see her son at graduation.
School officials said they banned Carter because of allegedly threatening comments she made about a school employee. But Carter and other parents say they suspect school officials were motivated by her advocacy on behalf of students with disabilities and others who were struggling to get support.
Experts say it’s common for schools to retaliate against parents they see as troublemakers, those who complain or try to make change. But banning parents from campus is an especially harsh measure, one officials in Demopolis have deployed in recent years.
Now the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is investigating Demopolis City Schools for racial discrimination and retaliation. They opened the investigation in December after Carter filed a complaint.
In the past five years, Demopolis City School officials have issued 12 no trespass notices to 10 individuals, according to records obtained by AL.com. Nearly all recipients, including Carter, were Black.
Some people were banned for abuse or attempted assault of employees or students. Officials barred others for “loud, unruly behavior,” cursing on school grounds, or, in Carter’s case, “verbal assault” against a board employee, records show. AL.com has confirmed that in at least one other instance, a parent claimed they were barred from campus after bringing up a concern with school staff.
Of the 10 recipients, including some charged with crimes, Carter was the only one to be banned from all district properties.
The notices came about a week after Carter criticized two band sponsors, one of whom is a white school employee, at a football game. She was unhappy about the sponsors’ leadership of the majority- Black color guard and dance line, which Carter’s daughter performs in.
In response to questions from AL.com, school officials said they only take such swift actions against parents if they make a threat against someone else.
But Carter said she was simply standing up for her daughter and other auxiliary teammates. And she said she wasn’t threatening and wasn’t aware of the sponsors’ role as a school employee.
“It is no one thing; it is the totality of Nikki,” said Elizabeth Ogden, a Demopolis parent who has also been vocal about issues in the local schools. “It is a Black woman who has dared to advocate for her child and for other children. And because she’s effective at it.”
A ‘harsh’ practice
In schools, trespass orders typically are used in custody battles or against people with domestic violence charges. Federal law prohibits schools from retaliating against parents, students or school staff for acting in the best interest of children.
In Alabama, people who violate no trespass orders on public property face up to a month in jail. In an effort to keep schools free of crime, state lawmakers have tried, but failed, to make it easier for school officials to bar people from campus.
In 2017, Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, opposed a bill that would have made it possible for police to arrest anyone who defied a school’s verbal request to leave, even without a warrant or no trespassing order. Moore, a former educator, said she knew parents in the Birmingham area that had been banned from school over seemingly minor disputes.
“We have people in administration that think they own the public schools that they’re over,” Moore told AL.com recently. “And they think they’re the Lord and Master, and if you disagree with them, then I’ll just ban you from my kingdom.”
Michelle Givan, a special education advocate in Jefferson County, said school staff threatened to ban her from her son’s school years ago.
In her decades of helping other parents handle retaliation cases, she’s seen schools refuse to provide services to students with disabilities, or sometimes treat students poorly or deny them certain opportunities after a disagreement with a parent.
But banning parents from campus, she said, is a rare and “cruel” form of punishment.
“From what I can tell, that’s just not common,” she said. “That is harsh.”
Fear of retaliation is common among parents — especially those who have children with disabilities, or who are advocates, like Carter.
A survey from the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates found that many parents choose not to file complaints about issues in their schools because they’re afraid of retaliation. Selene Almazan, the council’s legal director, added that advocates in small communities often face an even greater risk than those in large districts.
“Especially if you have some success,” she said, “the schools do get even more skittish and worried and want to figure out a way to stop it.”
Carter, whose daughter is captain of the dance line, had grown frustrated with how two band sponsors were letting discipline and other issues slide, and causing tension between teammates. She confronted the sponsors at an out-of-town football game on Sept. 16, after a white parent also voiced her concerns.
According to Ogden, who witnessed the incident, one of the sponsors, who works at a Demopolis elementary school, followed Carter to the stands after the discussion, despite Carter telling her to leave her alone.
Carter recalled venting to another parent and saying the sponsor “was about to get her ass whipped” if she kept pestering her. She told AL.com she didn’t know the sponsor was a school employee, and she thought the comment was made out of earshot.
When the orders came a week later, Carter was shocked. She’d seen far worse disputes at football games, but those parents weren’t banned from school. She would have welcomed an investigation, she added, but no one called to get her side of the story.
“In an effort to protect our faculty and staff, we file a trespass order for people that make threats against the school or the people in it,” Superintendent Tony Willis told AL.com, in response to questions about Carter’s trespass order.
State officials said they leave trespass decisions up to local districts. In Demopolis, school officials talk to witnesses and law enforcement before filing a no trespass notice, according to Alex Braswell, the school board attorney. He said Carter’s notices included all property because the alleged threat involved an employee at another school. He declined to respond to allegations of retaliation, citing privacy reasons.
Carter filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights immediately after she received the notice on Sep. 23, and federal officials opened an investigation on Dec. 5. She said she believed she was retaliated against, and called on the office to investigate the practice, as well as the district’s treatment of Black parents. That investigation continues, according to the Department’s public database.
“This is the thing that has been going on in this community for years,” Carter told AL.com the day she filed her complaint. “And it happens and nobody does anything. But I’m not accepting this. Because then for me, if I accept this, what is that going to tell the people who come to me to advocate for them?”
Who is involved in a trespass order?
In Demopolis, trespass orders are easy to request — but difficult to contest, AL.com found.
Anyone can file a no-trespass notice, but they must submit a form to the Demopolis Municipal Court first. That form is typically approved by a clerk, rather than a judge, who then sends a letter to the local police chief to sign.
Karen Broadhead, the town’s municipal court clerk, said the court asks individuals to provide a reason for their request, but that most requests are granted.
“We have people who want to know why they’re trespassed, but that really doesn’t fall to us — up until the point where an arrest is made,” said Rex Flowers, the local police chief.
In other words, it’s easy to ban someone from a property. And it’s hard for the person to regain that access without risking arrest and a court appearance.
Mark Polson, a Birmingham-based lawyer who handles trespass cases, said property owners have a right to block whomever they want from their property.
But forbidding a parent from attending a public school board meeting, he said, is likely a violation of their first amendment rights.
“We live in a free society where those who govern us can’t do it behind closed doors,” he said. “So it would have to be a pretty extreme situation to justify not allowing, especially a parent, into a public meeting.”
‘People are hurting’
Carter, a victim’s rights worker who long considered herself an advocate for others, had only recently gotten involved in education issues.
She said she was tired of seeing so many young people wrapped up in the court system, and suspected many had disabilities that were going unnoticed. So she spent months studying up on federal and state laws, and teaching herself what terms like “IEP” and “504” meant. In May and August of 2022, she held workshops with big-name lawyers to help teach parents their rights.
“People are hurting,” she said, recalling a conversation with a mother whose child was suspended on the first week of school. She said the student showed signs of a disability but was never tested by the school. “It’s so mind boggling that in cases like this, they know these things — why not give them the proper services that they need?”
Public schools are required to identify and test children who may have a disability. While not all students with disabilities require special services, it’s a baseline number that can determine what supports students may need.
Demopolis has consistently shown one of the lowest rates in the state, about 6-7%, of children diagnosed with disabilities. Advocates suspect the number is low because the school isn’t doing enough work to identify children who need support.
“If folks aren’t aware of their rights, and the schools aren’t advertising them, you have this sort of combo there that can be really harmful for the students because nobody is really fully understanding all that the school district should be doing and is receiving funding to do,” said Mike Tafelski, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center.
DaLee Chambers, the state’s special education director, said good interventions could be a reason that some schools aren’t referring lots of students for services. But “in another instance, an obvious thing is it could be that they’re overlooking kids that they shouldn’t overlook,” she said.
Demopolis leaders say their numbers are low because they have qualified staff who intervene if a student is showing signs of a learning disability.
“We take pride in making sure that we support all our student needs and properly give services as needed and investigate any potential or referrals to see if they qualify,” Willis wrote in a statement to AL.com. “Because in the end, we do not strive to meet a number or percentage but rather we strive to meet the needs of the students.”
But Carter said she’d encountered several parents — and some educators — who felt otherwise.
Before she left Westside Elementary School in 2021, Constance Cleveland was one of the only classroom teachers with a special education background, she said. She worked to get certified after realizing that many of her students needed some extra help.
She had students who were nonverbal and struggled with basic motor skills, like holding their pencils. But Cleveland told AL.com that school officials discouraged educators from getting kindergartners tested or placed on learning plans.
“A lot of teachers label them as late bloomers and push them on,” she said, adding that she would test students herself and adjust her teaching to meet their educational needs.
Amanda Harrison, another former teacher in Demopolis, has a middle school son with autism. She’s now suing the district after fighting for years to get him services.
Initially, Harrison said it cost her around $4,000 to get her son, who is nonverbal, screened for disabilities. The school failed to provide Harrison’s son with behavioral therapy, the lawsuit said, among other interventions.
Harrison felt like she had no option but to put her son in a boarding school, she said. That is, until she met Carter, who started sitting in on staff meetings and helped connect her with legal support.
“That’s my backbone right there,” Harrison said. “She helped me push when I wanted to give up.”
A ‘bittersweet’ celebration
At the end of the school year, Carter was still barred from school campuses. As of this summer, the Office of Civil Rights had yet to come up with a resolution, according to emails reviewed by AL.com.
But after months of back and forth, the district offered Carter a concession: She could go to her son’s graduation.
Carter received that letter on May 18, a day before the ceremony. The next day, she was buzzing around her Demopolis home, making sure her son, Simeon, had ironed his shirt and secured a ride to the high school.
“Are you happy and excited because momma’s going now?” Carter asked him as she fixed his bow tie and smoothed his gown. “Mhmm!” Simeon said with a smile.
Simeon, a soft-spoken senior, told AL.com “it felt really special” to have his mom come to his ceremony. She helped him cross the finish line, he said, even when she couldn’t always be there for him in person.
“It’s almost like a bittersweet thing,” Carter said, sitting in her living room decked out with sparkly graduation decor.
A few minutes later, she put on a T-Shirt that said “Proud Mom,” pinned it with a portrait of Simeon in his gown, and made her way to the high school’s campus for the first time in months.
She said she felt awkward and out of place. But when she saw Simeon’s name in the program, she grinned. She sang his alma mater and cheered for his classmates. As Simeon approached the stage, she told a man nearby to yell her son’s name as loud as he could.
Then she went home. And began to wonder if she will go through the same battle again next year. She’s still barred from visiting her daughters’ middle and high schools.
“It is draining, and it hurts,” she told AL.com later.
“My kids, they didn’t do anything.”
© 2023 Advance Local Media LLC
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