One day last June, Tyree Barrett, a skinny, dimply-faced 16-year-old enrolled in summer classes at Hillside High School in Durham, raised his hand to ask to use the bathroom. He occasionally made this request, owing to his Type 1 diabetes, which affects his mood and requires constant blood-sugar monitoring. Tyree hadn't eaten lunch yet and was feeling restless.
An hour later, Tyree was at Duke University Medical Center, passed out and linked to an IV tube.
He was also suspended from school. The reason: disruptive behavior.
Tyree's situation is not uncommon for students with disabilities in Durham. According to the U.S. Department of Education, 17 percent of Durham Public School students with disabilities were suspended at least once during the 2009–2010 school year, compared to 8.4 percent of students without disabilities. In secondary school specifically, the suspension rate for kids with disabilities was 24.3 percent. During the 2011–2012 school year, nearly half of DPS students with disabilities failed to graduate on time.
Last spring, those statistics caught the attention of Advocates for Children's Services for Legal Aid of North Carolina, which filed an administrative complaint with the education department's Office for Civil Rights, alleging that DPS's over-reliance on suspensions discriminates against minorities and students with disabilities. This month Legal Aid added Tyree as a complainant.
"Students with disabilities are some of the most vulnerable students in the system," said Peggy Nicholson, an attorney for N.C. Legal Aid, which offers free services to low-income individuals. "On days they are out of school they're not just missing out on a general education curriculum; they're also not getting their specialized services. They're being punished for things they don't have full control over when there are other ways to mediate their behavior."
Tyree was diagnosed with diabetes at age 6. He couldn't always play basketball at the local courts, where he was known for his ability to attack the basket, because he needed to check his blood, inject his thighs or arms with insulin and then wait 30 minutes to eat. At school, his sugar levels fluctuated so wildly he sometimes had trouble seeing the blackboard.
Tyree received his first suspension for disruptive behavior in fifth grade, stemming from another denied bathroom request, he says. Since 2004, he has had official DPS permission for unlimited bathroom breaks and clearance to eat sweet snacks in class; those stipulations are part of his endocrinology and individualized education reports kept in his file.
When Tyree's sugar levels are stable he has the potential to sail through class. In a 2012 school report his teachers described him as a bright student who works well with peers. But in recent years he spent a couple of extended stays in the hospital, one as long as four months last winter. Sometimes his frustration prompts him to skip insulin shots. On occasion he has abused his bathroom privileges just to get out of class. His attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diagnosed in middle school, doesn't help.
"I don't care if I die now," Tyree told his mother, Sharon, a few times. "They don't care about me in school."
So when Sharon received Tyree's text complaining that he wasn't permitted to use the bathroom, she kicked into alarm mode. But as she tried to explain the situation to an office administrator over the phone, the situation in the classroom was getting worse.
Tyree had asked his teacher a second time to excuse himself but was again rebuffed. So he grabbed his medical kit and walked out the door. He entered a bathroom stall, stuck a paper strip in his glucometer, and then stabbed his finger with a pricker, drawing blood. The glucometer showed dangerously high sugar levels.
His teacher did not let him back into the classroom, he says. In the hallway, Tyree bumped into Assistant Principal Adonis Blue, who had been summoned to the second floor.
"What, you can't hold it in for a half-hour?" Tyree recalls Blue saying. "When's the last time you peed yourself since you were 3?" (Blue deferred comments to a DPS spokesman, who said student privacy laws prevent him from responding to allegations about Blue.)
Tyree cursed at the assistant principal, and then walked away. Forget this, he thought. Behind him, Tyree heard Blue's voice on a walkie-talkie. "We need an officer down at the main office."
DPS responded to Legal Aid's complaint by scheduling a series of public forums to help parents air their grievances about suspensions. Since then, the school system has dragged its feet, says Nicholson. "There needs to be a major revision to the student code of conduct and a shift in resources to prevent suspensions. I haven't seen anything bold, action-wise. It's still a question mark."
DPS' disciplinary code permits out-of-school suspensions for disruptive behavior and nonviolent acts like skipping class, violating dress code, wearing sunglasses and cursing. However the policy dictates that nonviolent offenses generally shouldn't result in suspensions, except in cases of persistent violations or aggravating factors.
Under that policy, DPS suspends thousands of students every year. In the academic term ending in 2012, nearly 3,200 high school students, or one third, served short-term suspensions, up 8 percent from the previous year.
In addition to disparities for students with disabilities, 23 percent of black DPS students were suspended at least once during the 2009–2010 school year. For black males in middle school, the suspension rate was 37 percent. Research shows that frequent suspensions are associated with academic failure, dropping out and involvement in the juvenile justice system.
Debbie Pittman, DPS assistant superintendent for student, family and community services, and school board chairwoman Heidi Carter both acknowledge suspension disparities in Durham. But in interviews they denied Legal Aid's contention that the school system isn't working quickly to address it.
"We've been working in full cooperation with the Office for Civil rights trying to collaborate to come up with appropriate next steps to address the issue," said Pittman.
In recent months DPS has instructed principals to monitor suspension data and look for racial and disability disparities, she said. "We really do want to support students and don't want to suspend them except as a last resort."
The school system has also retrained teachers of exceptional students to customize intervention plans, and presented a report to the school board last month based on four community forums last year. "There's a tremendous amount of work going on within the district," said Pittman. "We're in no way dragging our feet."
Last October the school system launched an alternative-to-suspension program at W.G. Pearson Middle Magnet School to provide academic services and support for kids with disabilities. Earlier this year it partnered with local nonprofit Rebound NC to launch a pilot program at the Durham Teen Center for students suspended from Jordan High School, serving up to five kids at a time.
Carter, the board chairwoman, said the code of conduct was revised in 2012, "and we plan to review the policy again and also make sure all schools are implementing it with fidelity to the intentions of the board."
Still, said Legal Aid's Nicholson, these initiatives "do nothing to reduce DPS's overreliance on harmful suspensions in lieu of more effective alternatives that don't remove students from their home school."
After receiving Tyree's texts and a follow-up phone call from him, last June, Sharon drove to Hillside. Pulling up to the parking lot, she saw her son being escorted out of the building by a sheriff's deputy. His eyes were red, his gait sluggish. Though he was mumbling, he managed to utter a question: "I got suspended for going to the bathroom?"
Sharon administered a blood test. Tyree's sugar-level had spiked to 392, she says. (The normal range for a diabetic is between 80 and 150.) During an impromptu meeting with Assistant Principal Blue, Sharon recalls, he said: "Nobody ever trained me that diabetics have to go to the bathroom consistently. I've never been told blood sugar levels affect emotions."
"You must have been trained by a fool," Sharon replied, later claiming that she was denied suspension paperwork.
Sharon rushed Tyree to the hospital as he faded in and out of sleep in the passenger seat. Upon arrival he was administered insulin and hooked up to IV fluids for several hours.
A hospital doctor wrote a note to the school ordering Tyree to be permitted to use the restroom whenever he needs to. When Tyree and Sharon arrived the next morning, a school administrator tried to send Tyree home with his textbooks. Sharon says she called the police. Eventually Tyree was permitted to return to class, and his suspension revoked, he says.
Legal Aid alleges that DPS "continually failed to ensure that school staff members were trained on the issues related to Tryee's disability, including how to spot symptoms of low or high blood sugar and how to respond to the resulting behaviors appropriately. Instead of helping prevent the behaviors, DPS exacerbated them by suspending Tyree for behaviors largely outside of his control."
The complaint, which is technically not a lawsuit, includes additional details of suspensions for nonviolent behavior including a five-day suspension levied on a student with ADHD who had been talking during a test and playing with his calculator. In addition for calling for a federal investigation into DPS, Legal Aid is demanding that DPS partner with independent experts to lower suspension rates for minorities and students with disabilities to less than 5 percent.
Last fall Tyree began his junior year at Hillside New Tech. Coincidentally, Blue had recently accepted an assistant principal position there. Tyree says he was suspended seven times during the fall semester, including five times for disruptive behavior caused by his medical condition. (Three suspensions are documented.)
On one occasion, Tyree experienced a plummeting of his blood sugar in class and could barely move. Tyree recalls that his teacher sent him to the office, despite a doctor's note in his file instructing teachers not to leave him alone if he complains about symptoms of low blood sugar. During the walk to the office Tyree collapsed. Someone called an ambulance, and he was rushed to the hospital.
Upon returning to school the next morning Tyree was initially given a detention for skipping class; apparently no one told his teacher that he had been hospitalized the previous day. The detention was revoked after Sharon protested.
One morning last week, Tyree sprawls across his living room chair, yawning. He wears the same crisp white-and-green Polo he wore when he was admitted to the hospital the day he was suspended last June.
"I'm so tired," he mumbles, stretching his arms.
He had awoken with low sugar levels—a problem he fixed with orange juice, insulin, grits, tater tots and sausages. But now it is noon, and again he can't focus. He grabs his medical bag, pricks his finger and sticks a drop of blood on his glucometer strip. The machine beeps and Tyree frowns. Right on the edge of the danger zone.
On a frustration scale of 1 to 10, he says, "I'm at 11."
Sharon sits on a couch nearby, cradling an infant she is babysitting. Tyree asks if he can fix something to eat. "I'm craving some popcorn," he says, dragging himself to the kitchen.
Sharon says Tyree's school troubles continued through the end of the year. Blue continued to embarrass him on occasion in the hallway for taking bathroom breaks, he says. Sharon was unable to obtain homework for any of Tyree's classes with the exception of French, she later claimed in a formal grievance with the school.
After one suspension, Sharon consulted Blue, who assured her he would tell Tyree's teachers to incorporate missing assignments into current classwork, she wrote in her grievance. But Tyree's report card over Christmas contained several Fs. Sharon reached out to teachers, who said Blue never told them to waive the missed homework, she claims.
"Mr. Blue is an administrative bully," Sharon says now. "He needs to be disciplined. I'm not a vindictive person. But the teachers need to be trained to deal with kids and not antagonize them."
In December a friend referred Sharon to North Carolina Central University's Juvenile Law Clinic. Upon reviewing his records, "We thought it was really important that the school understand that what happens to Tyree medically also affects him behaviorally," said Erwin Byrd, a supervising attorney for the clinic last semester. Byrd referred Tyree's case to Legal Aid.
Since January, after a series of meetings with lawyers and administrators, Tyree's school life has improved. His teachers have been retrained, and a copy of his care plan is kept in every classroom. He hasn't received any more suspensions, and his grades are up.
Still, Sharon wonders why things took so long. "You would never know how many kids are pushed into the court system because their IEP plans are not being followed. It's sad. You have to bring in lawyers just to do what's right."
Tyree returns to the living room, shoveling popcorn into his mouth. Re-energized, he jokes with his mother and announces he'd like to go swimming.
"You can see the difference now," Sharon said.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Second class citizens"