Commentary

In the case of Ka’Mauri Harrison, it’s the Jefferson Parish School Board versus everybody with sense

School board upholds child’s 6-day suspension despite overwhelming disapproval of that decision

December 11, 2020 7:00 am

Ka’Mauri Harrison (maroon shirt) and his family meet with Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry in the Landry’s office Sept. 28, 2020. Landry was a vocal critic of the Jefferson Parish school system’s decision to suspend Ka’Mauri for having a BB gun visible in his bedroom while he virtually attended his 4th-grade class. (Photo courtesy attorney Chelsea Cusimano)

The most powerful elected officials in Louisiana rushed to defend 9-year-old Ka’Mauri Harrison when the Jefferson Parish School System suspended him for inadvertently making a BB gun visible as he virtually took a test assigned by his 4th-grade teacher. Gov. John Bel Edwards, Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry and every Louisiana lawmaker who voted on the “Ka’Mauri Harrison Act” disapproved of the school district’s unconscionable decision.

Still, the Jefferson Parish School Board refused Dec. 4 to scrub a suspension from Ka’Mauri’s record, leaving him stuck with one of the worst disciplinary offenses a student can have: possession of a gun at school.

Ka’Mauri’s attorney, Chelsea Cusimano, said the child’s record won’t reflect that his kid brother tripped over the BB gun and that Ka’Mauri moved it out of the way and into the view of the camera.  It’ll only say “Ka’Mauri possessed a weapon on campus,” she said.

Cusimano also represents Tomie Brown, an 11-year-old former Student-of-the-Year who was also suspended for possessing a BB gun during a virtual class. The board upheld his suspension Friday, too.

Rep. Troy Romero (R-Jennings) introduced the “Ka’Mauri Harrison Act” that explicitly gives students a right to appeal some school disciplinary decisions. He said Thursday, “It’s just disheartening to know that Jefferson Parish is fighting so hard against what seemed to me to be something that was very innocent.” The bill sailing through the legislature without dissent means, Romero pointed out, that no Jefferson Parish lawmakers dissented either.

Romero called “ludicrous” the school system’s argument that a student sitting in his room with a BB gun is the same as a student bringing a weapon to campus. “That’s a home,” he said. “It’s a private environment.”

Nyron Harrison walks with his son Ka’Mauri’s toward the Louisiana State Capitol on the morning of Oct. 7, 2020, to testify before the Louisiana House Education Committee. (Photo courtesy attorney Chelsea Cusimano)

At that Friday meeting, according to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune The New Orleans Advocate, Mark Morgan, who presided over the meeting on his last day as a school board member, said, “The board found the testimony of the teacher and principal to be extremely credible.” In response to his family’s complaint that Ka’Mauri wasn’t afforded due process, Morgan said the due process “threshold was met, but just barely.”

On March 12, Louisiana children were happily going to school. On March 13, the governor, responding to alarming COVID-19 numbers, ordered them closed.  If school officials forgot to think of the many ways their rules would need to be adjusted for virtual environments, we’d understand.  But rather than admit being unprepared, Jefferson Parish would rather save face by treating children mercilessly.

Cusimano said she repeatedly asked “for all policies and procedures that apply to COVID learning.”  But not until Friday’s meeting, she said, did school system officials claim to have informed parents of virtual-learning rules with  automatic text messages sent Sept. 4 and 11.

“Embedded in all of these documents was one document with one line that says all campus policies and procedures apply to virtual-learning students,” Cusimano said. “That’s the only thing anywhere — and it was done via robo text.”

The Harrisons have no memory of such texts, she said.

On Oct. 19, in testimony to the Louisiana Senate Education Committee, attorney Fred Preis Jr., who’s representing the school system, suggested the system hadn’t had a policy when the boys were accused of violations. “We need some guidance and guidelines, that’s very true,” Preis said. “The reason I think a lot of the school boards — I can’t speak for all of them — didn’t have anything is what the representative for the superintendent said: I mean, we have been running around like crazy just trying to take care of the kids.”

Punishing children who aren’t doing wrong isn’t taking care of them. It’s actively harming them.

Cusimano said last Friday’s testimony revealed that neither Ka’Mauri nor Tomie’s teacher knew what to do in the respective incidents because neither teacher saw the student brandish a BB gun or even be disruptive.

“So they went to the principal, and the principal didn’t know what to do,” Cusimano said. “So they went to the district, and it was the district that then instructed them to write these children up for major referrals.”

School officials and school boards stopped aspiring to wisdom a generation or so ago. The new norm is an unyielding dedication to rules, lest a decision to give one student a lesser punishment provoke a lawsuit from a student given a greater punishment. But abandoning wisdom inevitably leads to ludicrous decisions — and the Harrisons are still filing suit.

As they should.

Everybody knows Ka’Mauri did nothing wrong. That’s why nobody should be defending the decision to suspend him.

 

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later NOLA.com) as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.

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