The morning Isthmus hit the streets with our story about a high school freshman's expulsion from East High School, I received an email from a father whose daughter had also been expelled under the Madison school district's zero tolerance policy.
He recalled how he had contacted me about two years ago to see if we'd be interested in telling the story of his daughter's expulsion ordeal. He and his daughter had even come to our offices for an interview. But they ended up changing their mind about going public. They were torn, he recalled, but decided it would be better to "move on" and minimize the "negative impact" on the girl.
I also received a call that day from the dad of a ninth-grader in the district. He told me that his son was in line to be expelled and that his "manifestation" hearing was scheduled for the next day. That is where school administrators determine whether the behavior that got a student in trouble is a "manifestation" of a disability. The dad seemed quite eager for me to write about his son's situation and gave me his home phone number so that I could follow up with him. I've since called him and left messages. But I haven't heard back.
I note these phone calls as a way to put in context criticism that, in the words of Wisconsin State Journal columnist Chris Rickert, "[I]n Madison, it had to be the discipline of a white, middle-class honors student that would galvanize public opinion against zero tolerance." Some readers who left anonymous online comments took the same tack.
According to school district data, the majority of students recommended for expulsion are African American. Of the 146 students recommended for expulsion in 2012-13, for instance, 89 were African American. Suspensions that year were also disproportionate: Black students were eight times more likely to be suspended than white students. Given these stats, it's understandable that some might wonder why our story about Maia, a white East High School student, made such a splash and why there have been no similar stories about black students facing expulsion.
But journalists should know better.
The girl I almost wrote about two years ago is white. The boy who is still facing expulsion is black.
I would have happily written about either -- and I'm pretty sure most reporters who know a good story would have also jumped at the chance. But you can't write an in-depth human-interest piece on the effect of school policy on minors without the buy-in of a minor and her family. Going public takes courage and a leap of faith that publicity will lead to more positive change than negative pushback. Reporters also have a responsibility to weigh those issues when moving forward with a very personal story about people who are not public officials.
In other words, this is not a step taken lightly by any of the parties involved.
Maia and her family went back and forth about whether they wanted to proceed with the story. But in the end they felt strongly that what was happening to them and other families under zero tolerance was wrong and that it needed to be exposed.
And while I'm happy to take credit for breaking the story that would "galvanize" public opinion, timing -- not the race or income of the family of the expelled student -- was perhaps the most critical factor here. Considerable momentum had already been building to toss out the district's zero tolerance policy by the evening of March 31, when the school board was scheduled to vote on a new conduct policy just minutes after weighing in on two expulsion cases, including Maia's.
Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham acknowledged to me that her support for moving away from zero tolerance might appear to contradict her recommendation that Maia be expelled through the 2014-15 school year for distributing a small amount of alcohol to a friend. She also suggested the school board might have a hard time reconciling the two.
That seems to have been the case as the board voted to return Maia to East High School, though the expulsion will remain on her record through her junior year.
There are lots of important stories that unfortunately get away because they need to be told from the inside out. Statistics can only go so far. Most journalists know that.