Sarah Ford | June 23, 2014

SPLC Helps Student Get Second Chance at Education

From SPLC's Stories from the Field Series

By Jennifer Coco, SPLC Staff Attorney

This past May, I received a phone call that left me fighting back tears of joy.

On the other end of the phone was Carlos Kelly, a high school student I had helped a few years ago by getting his expulsion overturned. He was a good kid who just needed a second chance at school. Once the SPLC helped him get that opportunity, he made the most of it: Carlos was calling to invite me to his high school graduation.

As I watched him accept his diploma, I felt so proud for this young man who had turned his life around. I was also grateful that we were able to help make this transformation possible.

When I first met Carlos in April 2012, he was an incredibly frustrated ninth-grader in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish Public School System. He had been repeatedly suspended for being disrespectful. He was eventually expelled. As I began helping him appeal the expulsion, it became clear to me that no adult had ever tried to understand why he was so frustrated and so angry. Instead, assumptions were made.

“Everywhere I went, they’d judge me by my background, as a kid from the Dominican Republic who had a bad older brother. I could never get a fresh start,” he said. “Teachers told me I’d be just like my older brother, who dropped out. It got so everyone thought I was so bad, so I decided I might as well be that bad.”

Carlos said he received so many suspensions that they began to run together. He didn’t see them as punishment. As Carlos put it, they were a vacation – a break from the people at school who didn’t understand him.

It was easy to see why he felt this way. After months of working with Carlos, he told me about a teacher calling him a “wetback.” When it happened, he initially didn’t know the word, and didn’t understand why all the other students started laughing and making fun of him. He asked his dad what it meant, which was a humiliating experience for both of them.

Sadly, Carlos wasn’t the first student to encounter racial hostility in this school district. In fact, his experience was included with those of more than a dozen other Latino families in a 2012 complaint the SPLC filed with the Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Education. That complaint has sparked a federal investigation into the Jefferson Parish Public School System.

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