High school has not been all fun and games for 19-year-old Renee.
Yet even though she struggled in school, she worked extra hard in her classes since she was determined to graduate. However, just before she was supposed to receive her diploma she was met with one final, humiliating challenge.
The new principal pulled a group of students aside, including Renee, to tell them that they had all had "irregular" test results. Every one of them would be required to take new tests or miss the opportunity to graduate.
The irregularities? Renee's scores were too excellent. The principal added that Renee and other students may have somehow used a teacher’s password and obtained the test answer key.
Renee immediately recognized that she was being called a cheater. Not only that, but as a person of African descent, she noticed her scores were doubted while the school was celebrating a white student whose test performance was the same.
That's when I heard about Renee's story. As the staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project, I called the principal to hear what he had to say.
The principal was the newest in a series of administrators at the school. As he stepped into the principal’s role, he didn't know anything about Renee’s particular academic history or the fact that her performance on a test was deemed to be too excellent once before. In this earlier incident, she was required to submit to another closely-monitored exam – which she passed.
When I spoke to the principal, I was able to tell him about Renee's particular academic history: she'd scored highly partly because she'd taken the class before, not because she was a cheater.
Since I had his ear, I also explained the importance of giving students an opportunity to be heard as individuals before being punished.
This is basic due process every student deserves. If provided in schools, many black students would be able to keep learning and succeeding instead of being pushed into the school-to-prison pipeline.
After I spoke to the principal, he not only agreed to meet with Renee and allow her an opportunity to speak for herself but also agreed to consider the individual circumstances of other students as well.
Two days later, a very proud and exuberant Renee clutched a high school diploma in her hand. A little bit of due process can go a very long way.
By Mark Fancher, Racial Justice Project staff attorney