This story was updated on Saturday, April 5.
Rasheeda Wilson, 37, says her son used to enjoy going to school at Harlem Success Academy 2. He was an exemplary kid, who skipped the first grade because of his academic achievement.
That all changed this year after an altercation with a bully resulted in a two-day suspension for Wilson’s son and the bully. After months of communicating with the school about her son’s bully, Wilson learned that her son had finally fought back. “[My son] felt trapped,” Wilson says, “he didn’t know what to do.”
She empathizes with another mom, Tynetta Megginson, whose son was expelled from the school last week. Megginson’s son, Storm McCraw, was a third-grader at Harlem 2 who was suspended 15 times this school year.
Nine-year old Storm is alleged to have thrown books and chairs, kicked a principal in the shin, and bitten an assistant principal. He is the first student Harlem 2, or any Success Academy, has expelled. Storm’s mother has publically claimed that Harlem 2 consistently violated her son’s rights since he failed state math and reading tests last year.
Harlem 2 is part of a network of 32 Success Charter Schools that boasts high academic achievement, including ranking in the top 1 percent in math and top 3 percent in English Language Arts exam scores in the state.
But the parents’ report card for Harlem Success Academy isn’t all straight A’s. Parents and community members have had mixed responses to the school’s tough stance on school discipline. The school has come under fire in the past for zero-tolerance policies, which use suspension as a standard punishment for infractions. Nearly one out of every five students at Harlem 2 was suspended in the 2013-2014 school year, according to data from the New York State Education Department.
Sheila Watson, the mother of a 3rd grader at the school, says she can’t complain, however. Teachers are very respectful, she said, and parents receive calls if there are problems, and she gets good progress reports too. “We’ve had no problems,” says Watson.
Rasheeda Wilson might have felt the same way until her son was bullied and suspended this year. “The zero-tolerance policy at this school has really negatively impacted the kids,” says Wilson. She thinks suspensions are applied too broadly, for a range of severe to minor infractions.
“Punishments should make sense,” says Wilson. Rather than keep students out of the classroom for days at a time, she thinks students could be given more homework, lose time during recess or stay longer after school.
“[My son’s] record was solid until this year,” says Wilson. Now she worries that he’s being targeted by teachers as a troublemaker, and will have the suspension on his record if he changes schools.
Eleanor Jordan, 72 is the grandmother of another third-grader at Harlem 2 who has had repeat suspensions. When it comes to school discipline, “there’s got to be another way to do it,” says Jordan.
She says more should be done to understand what’s causing a child’s behavior – maybe the student is experiencing problems at home, or is being bullied like Wilson’s son was. “We all have bad days,” says Jordan. “We should look into what’s really going on instead of sending them out, out, out.”
Harlem 2’s 19 percent suspension rate compares to just 3.4 percent of students who were suspended in all of New York City during the same year.
“Comparing suspension rates provides an incomplete picture,” says Success Charter Network spokeswoman, Ann Powell. “Some schools might have low suspension rates but more chaotic classrooms. At Success, we believe children need safe, orderly learning environments.”
“We regret we had to expel [Storm McCraw], the only student we have ever had to expel,” said Powell. “But we had no choice given the need to protect the safety and educational interests of other students.”
Tynetta Megginson is now looking for a new school for her son. “My main objective is that my son receives the education he deserves,” she says.
In response to other parents concerned about the zero-tolerance policy at Harlem Success Academy 2, Megginson says, “There are amazing children and families that are within the Success Academy network, and they need to know that their voices matter.”
This story was edited on Saturday, April 5. A previous version of this article said that Eleanor Jordan’s son was held back a grade because of his suspensions. Success Academy Network has said that it does not hold children back for suspensions; they are held back when they are not meeting grade level standards.