LivAbility Magazine
ACLU takes a stand against disciplinary bias in Maricopa county schools

Story by Tyler Peckham

Alexander Ayon is Mexican. Strike one. He is raised by a single mother. Strike two. He has severe anxiety, depression and ADHD. Strike three. At least that’s what his mother, Yvonne Ayon, believes.

Since he started Laveen’s Heritage Academy in 2015, Alexander received 18 disciplinary referrals for offenses like laughing and forgetting supplies. In late March of 2016, he received his 19th for passing notes in history class.

Ayon, a mother of five children with varying disabilities, was exasperated. She estimates each child has gone to 10 schools, none of which have adequately met her children’s needs.

Parents of students with disabilities have increasingly filed reports of biased disciplinary action within Maricopa County schools. The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona conducted a study on disciplinary disparities last summer that focused on minority and disabled students. For parents like Ayon, who suspected schools were discriminating against their children, the results confirmed their experiences. 

ACLU’s Luis Avila said more than half of disciplinary referrals and citations go to students in special education, disproportionate to the number of students with disabilities.

 “Children pushed out of the classroom by repetitive suspensions and citations are often pressed towards a deviant lifestyle in the streets, creating the school-to-prison pipeline,” Avila said.

The ACLU aims to combat this growing issue through a newly-formed program Demand2Learn. Led by Avila and implemented in targeted secondary schools, the program will connect students, parents, school administrators and the community at large. Demand2Learn volunteers examine district data, train parents and students on their rights in the classroom and work with community groups to create lasting solutions and support.

Ayon became an advocate for the Demand2Learn program after her first son, Anthony, dropped out of school in seventh grade following repeated referrals and disciplinary actions. He is currently in prison for car theft. His ADHD was diagnosed four years into his prison term for car theft.

“If you don’t get your education, they go to the streets,” Ayon said.

“When students get pushed out of school by punitive disciplinary measures, they tend to have unstructured time on the streets and are likely to have run-ins or negative experiences with law enforcement,” said Channel Powe, Balsz School Board member. “These encounters with law enforcement can lead to what we call the school-prison-pipeline.

The zero-tolerance policy feeding this pipeline is often attributed to aiming disciplinary action at prevent drug abuse and violence in schools. Laurel Bellow, President of the American Bar Association, said in a 2012 Senate hearing that the policy had a “disproportionate impact on st­­­­­­udents of color [and] students with disabilities.”

Since the report was published in August, Demand2Learn has joined with multiple school districts including Phoenix Union High and Balsz to revise policies regarding disciplinary action.

“I look forward to collaborating with all stakeholders to continue that work,” Phoenix Union High School District governing board member Stanford Prescott said.

Demand2Learn seeks to help revise biased disciplinary practices in schools, but until the governing board of each district approves the measure, no change will be made, Avila said. “It is really hard to reform in Arizona.” The ACLU of Arizona is the only group with such a heavily hands-on program, as other states focus “mostly through litigation,” Avila said. Demand2Learn hopes to revise programs on a larger scale after the trial schools are finished with the process.

Despite the ordeals her family experienced, Ayon is hopeful for the future. She works with Demand2Learn to create a solid support system in today’s classrooms so Alexander and other children don’t follow Anthony’s path to prison.

“Educators never took the time to save him.”

Tyler Peckham

Tyler Peckham

Tyler Peckham studies journalism at Arizona State University and plans to focus on entertainment writing. She loves classic rock, travelling and trying new restaurants. Tyler hopes to join the Peace Corps after college, finally use the Spanish she has learned in school and cultivate the perfect Instagram feed.