The ACLU-NC expressed deep concerns over the segregation of students of color who were pulled out of seventh grade classes at Dillard Drive Middle School in Raleigh in December 2007 to be lectured on zero tolerance, gangs, school rules, and the need for students of color to get better grades, while white students were not removed from their classrooms or subjected to such lectures.

The ACLU-NC’s investigation into this incident has revealed that Dillard Drive Middle School Principal Teresa Abron pulled all African-American students from seventh-grade classes following a physical altercation between an African-American girl and a Hispanic girl, both seventh-grade students, in which some of these girls’ friends also became involved in a verbal altercation. Teachers were instructed to send all African-American seventh graders to the auditorium that afternoon for an assembly on gangs, the school’s zero tolerance policies, and the importance of following school rules. Reportedly, students who attended this assembly were also lectured on the low grade point average of students of color, compared to white students, at Dillard Drive Middle School.

Teachers were further instructed that once the African-American students returned to class, teachers should then dismiss all Hispanic seventh graders to the auditorium for a similar assembly.

Hundreds of students who had nothing to do with the specific altercation that had taken place that day were outraged at the way this matter was handled by their principal. White students and students of color joined together to protest the disparate treatment of students based solely on race or ethnicity, and on multiple occasions, they presented petitions to Principal Abron, objecting to the racially segregated assemblies. Reportedly, the principal responded by ripping their petitions up and threatening to suspend any students who signed new petitions.

“School principals have difficult jobs and are to be commended for responding quickly to specific altercations and for attempting to promote non-violence in their schools,” said Jennifer Rudinger, Executive Director of the ACLU-NC. “Unfortunately, however, Principal Abron’s methods of addressing these issues will only further divide students based on race or ethnicity and further exacerbate the problems in her school. Moreover, schools have an obligation to treat all students equally, regardless of race or ethnicity, and the segregated assemblies at Dillard Drive clearly violated that principle of race neutrality.”

Rudinger added, “Rather than addressing only the specific students involved in the altercation, Principal Abron felt it necessary to disseminate a broader message. That would have been fine if her determination of which students should be addressed had not been based solely on the students’ race or ethnicity. By removing only the students of color from the learning environment and subjecting them to this lecture, Principal Abron unwittingly perpetuated the stereotypes that students of color are “problem students” who must be dealt with, and that white students do not need to attend this kind of assembly because white students are less likely to get into trouble.”

In its written complaint to Principal Abron and the Wake County School District, the ACLU-NC noted that there were many students pulled out of the classroom who had nothing to do with the fight and didn’t even know a fight had occurred. There is no reason, the ACLU-NC letter argued, to remove these innocent students from the classroom but not the white students who also had nothing to do with this particular fight. The principal’s actions seem to be based on some erroneous and damaging racial assumptions.

“And finally,” added Rudinger, “the numerous reports we have heard that school officials think it is appropriate to rip up students’ petitions and threaten them with disciplinary action for participating in this form of peaceful protest are appalling. Not only did Principal Abron disregard the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but she and other school personnel added insult to injury by violating students’ First Amendment rights as well!”

We represented two parents in filing a complaint with the Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (“OCR”). Even after mediation, the school district refused to resolve the matter. We are excited to announce that on February 26, 2009, OCR issued its “Letter of Findings” in this case. In the Letter of Findings, the OCR stated that “there is sufficient evidence to find that the District did, in fact, treat students differently based on their race when School administrators made the decision to require African American and Hispanic students to attend two separate assemblies based on their race.” In response to the findings, the school district has agreed to issue a public apology school-wide and has also agreed in writing never to repeat the actions of 12/4/07. This acknowledgment will appear in Wake County Public School System’s permanent OCR record.