By Jennifer Coco, senior staff attorney, SPLC Louisiana
During graduation season, I sometimes find myself thinking back to a ceremony that left me fighting back tears of joy in 2014. That’s when I got to see Carlos Kelly receive his high school diploma.
Graduating high school is always a major milestone in life, but it had special significance for Carlos. It was only a few years earlier that I helped get his expulsion overturned. Carlos was a good kid who simply needed a second chance at school. After the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) helped provide that opportunity, he made the most of it. As I watched the ceremony, I felt so proud for this young man who had turned his life around. I was also grateful that the SPLC was able to help make this transformation possible. It was a long way from when I met an incredibly frustrated ninth-grader in Louisiana’s Jefferson Parish Public School System.
Carlos had been repeatedly suspended for being disrespectful. Eventually, he was expelled. As I began helping him appeal the expulsion, it became clear to me that no adult had ever tried to understand the source of his frustration and anger. 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,” he said. “I could never get a fresh start. 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.” The suspensions became so frequent that they began to run together in Carlos’ mind. He no longer saw suspension as punishment. Instead, it was a break from the people at school who didn’t understand him – a much-needed vacation. It was easy to see why he felt that 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 meaning of the word, and didn’t understand why all the other students started laughing at him, making him the butt of jokes. He asked his dad what the word 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 civil rights complaint the SPLC filed with the Justice Department and the U.S. Department of Education. That complaint sparked a federal investigation into the Jefferson Parish Public School System.
The SPLC was able to get Carlos’ expulsion overturned, but there was one condition: He had to attend a different high school in the district. I told him that this was his chance to prove wrong all the people who had prejudged him. This was his second chance. He needed to make it count.
“I gave it 110 percent,” Carlos said. “I realized [Attorney Coco] had put a lot of effort to put me back into school, so I didn’t want to disappoint her or my dad. I told myself I had to focus. When someone at school made me mad, I’d say ‘Carlos, they’re pushing your buttons. Don’t let them.’ At my old school I would have exploded.” But Carlos didn’t let anger get the best of him. He even met people at his new school to help him make the most of this opportunity. “I met a counselor who took the time to talk to me,” he said. “She told me when she was in high school she had a mouth that got her into trouble, and she went through what I was going through. She really helped me. I felt like I had someone looking out for me for the first time.”
Carlos’ hard work paid off. Today, he’s a student at Alcorn State University in Mississippi. The criminal justice major hopes to one day be a prosecutor. As for the Jefferson Parish Public School System, school officials reached a settlement agreement with federal officials to ensure students won’t face discrimination and hostility because of their national origin or English language proficiency.
“You need to give people second chances,” Carlos said as he reflected on his experience. “I felt like I was in a box and I couldn’t get out of it. School and teachers should be there to help you, and all kids should get second chances.”
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