The Mandatory-Expulsion Maze: Giving a Friend an Adderall Derailed an Honor Student’s Academic Career. He’s Not the Only One

Seaira Caldwell (Bekah McNeel)

Andy Rodriguez is not what you’d expect a dropout to look like. Artistic and inclined to achieve, the high school junior was attending an elite arts magnet in San Antonio when he made what his mom, Angela, called “a stupid mistake.”

He gave a friend an Adderall.

His school reported it as a felony — and then had no choice but to expel him.

From there, Rodriguez (not his real name; he asked for anonymity as he rebuilds his future) found himself thwarted by policies that were not necessarily designed to make it harder to get back on track but nonetheless left him with little option but to finish high school online, without the Advanced Placement credits and prestigious diploma he’d been on track to obtain.

Mandatory-expulsion laws vary from state to state, and many students do not know about them until they have committed an offense — wittingly or unwittingly. But once expulsion happens, students describe a jarring transition from a world where teachers and principals make subjective calls based on the kid’s past and overall character to a legalistic process of statutes and protocols that can leave them high and dry.

Often, it’s the students with the brightest prospects who have the most to lose. Transcript boosters like specialized courses and AP classes are often unavailable in the alternative education system these students are forced into, taking them out of the running for competitive college admissions.

The most fortunate have parents or advocates to help them forge a new path. Others end up reasonably mistrustful of “the system” or disengaged from it altogether, reducing any chance that they will find jobs that support a stable lifestyle, said Tyler Whittenberg of the Advancement Project, a national civil rights advocacy group. “We know that suspension and expulsion don’t work,” he said. “They literally don’t address any behavioral issue.”

What they do, he said, is feed the so-called school-to-prison pipeline. “Pipeline,” though, is really a misnomer, Whittenberg said: “It’s more like a maze.”

‘Chutes and Ladders’

Rodriguez had carried the kind of courseload that doesn’t leave a lot of room for getting into trouble.

He was taking seven AP classes at an elite arts magnet program in North East Independent School District, a suburban district outside San Antonio where less than half the students come from families making $44,000 or less. His musical talent had won him a coveted spot in the program, unlike anything available to him in his home district, San Antonio ISD, where 91 percent of families (though not his) make $44,000 or less.

It turned out to be an opportunity easily revoked.

Just before Thanksgiving break in 2018, a friend approached Rodriguez in a state of angst. As he tells it, she said she had forgotten to take her Adderall that morning. He had a prescription for the attention deficit disorder drug and gave her one of his pills.

Two weeks later, as they prepared to take their semester finals, Rodriguez was called into the school office. The girl, it turned out, had not had a prescription — though it’s unlikely that would have mattered, legally. Rodriguez had distributed a controlled substance on school grounds. The offense qualified as a felony, and it triggered mandatory expulsion.

At first, he said, teachers and administrators were reassuring, making the situation seem less serious than it was. But as the day progressed, the interactions grew more procedural, he said: “I’m absolutely certain they knew what was going to happen.”

He would be expelled, five days short of the 90 percent attendance required to get credit for his AP classes. He lost all his coursework for the semester.

Though Rodriguez wondered if the school had some tiny bit of flexibility that could have kept him on track academically, the process was in keeping with Texas’s mandatory-expulsion policy, district spokesperson Aubrey Chancellor said. “It’s really out of our hands,” she said.

What followed, said Rodriguez’s mom, felt like “a game of Chutes and Ladders.” One policy triggered another, making opportunities evaporate. North East ISD does not allow nonresident students to re-enroll in the district after they have been expelled.

“They’re here,” Chancellor said, “as a courtesy.”

It would be up to Rodriguez’s home district, San Antonio ISD, to set the terms of his expulsion.

Before he could enroll in his neighborhood high school, the district required him to attend the non-residential Bexar County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program for the remainder of the school year. However, his AP credits were lost, because his former high school would not provide the materials and information the program staff would have needed to help him complete his classes. By the time he got out, he would be a rising senior, too old to enroll in any of his home district’s magnet programs or early college high schools. He would go to his neighborhood high school, a lower-income school that offered only a fraction of the AP courses he had planned to take. His college applications would look very different.

In Texas, students can be assigned to the juvenile justice program for anywhere from 10 to 180 days as part of their disciplinary sentence; the average length of enrollment in the Bexar County program was 58 days in 2018. If the expelling district cooperates, said program director Stephanie Gonzales, students can make up much of what they’ve missed. The program can accommodate honors and even some AP classes, she said, and if the school will work with her, she can pick up classwork for students with short-term sentences.

Every student gets an Individualized Education Plan and is expected to complete classes like English and history through independent reading. For certain subjects that require more instruction, such as science, languages or higher-level math, Gonzales can bring in specialists. But a lot depends on what the district will allow. They might not have control over mandatory expulsions, but districts have lots of discretion in what happens to students afterward.

In fact, there is so much inconsistency that it’s impossible to establish any norms, let alone best practices, said Hailly Korman, a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners. In combing through data from the federal Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights for the approximately 111,000 expelled students nationwide, she found that states don’t even have the same definitions or terminology for juvenile justice or alternative school programs. Between 2011 and 2014, only 10 states used correct coding in reporting data about their programs to the government. Such lax data-keeping is telling, Korman said: Federal, state and local agencies have not prioritized accountability on behalf of the students.

“These schools function as off-the-books enterprises,” she said.

(Bekah McNeel)

Comparing that sparse information to the extensive reporting required for children enrolled in public schools, Korman said, made it clear that once students are expelled, they are largely written off. For instance, in some juvenile justice programs, she said, every student sits for the GED. Once that is done, the students can be reported as having finished high school, even though they have not had the teaching and content exposure of those who complete their studies in class.

One thing she was able to glean from the data is that alternative or juvenile justice programs typically “offer less access to higher-level math and science classes than their neighborhood school counterparts.”

Weighing their options, Rodriguez’s family felt it would be best if he enrolled in an online program to finish high school and simultaneously take classes at a community college. It took months of research, and neither the online classes nor the community college courses are free. But his family is middle class, able to shoulder the cost.

“My parents spent a lot of time trying to make it better,” Rodriguez said, even though he struggled to motivate himself. His family dragged him along until he could hit what he called “a hard reset” on his own motivation.

The program’s educational program director, Rebekah Martinez, said parents play a primary role in helping kids reengage in school after an expulsion. The more resources — time, expertise and money — the family has, the less likely it will be that teenage transgressions will divert students straight to the school-to-prison pipeline.

The rise of zero tolerance

Of the 154 students enrolled at the Bexar County Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program at various times in the 2018-19 school year, 55 percent had been subject to mandatory expulsion, program officials said — largely as a result of zero-tolerance laws that proliferated after the passage of the federal Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994. The rhetoric of the day was all about fear of gang violence, so-called superpredators and losing the war on drugs. But there’s no getting away from the racial stereotyping inherent in the political effort to pass those laws, said Whittenberg. “Even the tone and the language used to pass and enact these [laws],” he said, “they’re racist, really. They’re archaic.”

Whatever the intent, the disproportionate effects of the laws are clear, as shown in research from the Office for Civil Rights and numerous think tanks and advocacy groups. The gap varies from state to state, Whittenberg said, but black and Hispanic youth are always overrepresented in disciplinary data.

From there, a predictable scenario plays out. Research shows that suspension and expulsion make it more likely that a student will land in the juvenile justice system. Recidivism data differ from state to state, according to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, but in some states as many as 80 percent of youths who are incarcerated are rearrested shortly after release. As this cycle continues, they eventually age out of the juvenile system and end up in adult courts and jails.

Following the passage of zero-tolerance laws, states saw an immediate increase in black and Latino youth in the juvenile justice system, Whittenberg said. Where discretion existed, it was usually exercised to the benefit of white students, who have been found to face lighter punishment for the same offenses than their black and Hispanic counterparts.

Though the Gun-Free Schools Act, which requires schools to expel students for bringing firearms onto campus, allows states to create a case-by-case review process, all accept the federal mandate as absolute. And though zero tolerance went out of fashion during the Obama era, which emphasized restorative justice and positive behavior interventions, schools do not want to risk getting sued for making exceptions to laws already on the books. For not reporting the gun. For not expelling the offender.

“Government entities are liability-driven,” Whittenberg said.

States differ in how much discretion they leave to school districts.

Beyond the Gun-Free Schools Act, places like Texas, California and Virginia have additional grounds for mandatory expulsion. In Virginia, possession of a controlled substance requires expulsion, save in cases where a special exception is justified after an investigation. In California, suspension is mandatory and superintendents are required to recommend expulsion for “brandishing a knife at another person,” selling controlled substances, attempting or committing sexual assault or possessing explosives. The “recommendation” provision in California’s law allows for lesser punishments in special circumstances but makes them the exception, not the rule.

Texas has 11 offenses for which expulsion is required, one of the most extensive lists in the country. Most, like murder, manslaughter and abuse of children, are specific criminal acts, but one provision in state law makes any felonious behavior grounds for mandatory expulsion.

The sweeping nature of those laws is stretching the Bexar County program beyond its original intent, said Lynne Wilkerson, the county’s chief probation officer. Every legislative session, Wilkerson opposes new mandatory-expulsion bills. Most recently, Texas’s Legislature in 2019 heard a proposal to add “terroristic threats.”

Although that bill did not pass in its original form, language was written into another measure (one that has been signed into law) that requires any student expelled for terroristic threats to attend his or her county’s juvenile justice program. Wilkerson said she is not yet sure how this will affect the numbers in Bexar County.

She wants to see more disciplinary discretion returned to the schools. Those who know the kids best, she said, should decide whether expulsion is really the most beneficial approach.

For students who have committed dangerous or violent acts, or those whose perpetual destructive behaviors can no longer be addressed by their school, the program offers what is known as therapeutic justice, akin to drug court. Students meet with a caseworker from Communities in Schools, a national dropout prevention organization, who can address the social-emotional issues at the root of their behavior and often provide the listening adult ear the kids have been craving.

Students work with tutors and instructors at the ratio and pace necessary to help them master academic subject matter. Students with learning disabilities are among the most overdisciplined kids in Texas, according to data from the Texas Education Agency, and having one-on-one instruction can help.

This therapeutic approach makes recidivism low, Wilkerson said. The county defines recidivism as a second referral to a juvenile justice program in the same school year. In 2018, Wilkerson reported no repeat referrals.

Still, while she said the program’s staffers are doing what they should for the students who need it, with every new mandatory minimum, they are asked to do more.

The proliferation of disguisable marijuana products and of vape pens, which can be used for legal nicotine or illegal THC (the active ingredient in pot), has increased the influx of students from suburban, higher-income schools, program staff said. For those students to keep up with their classes, the program has had to broaden its ability to facilitate AP and dual-credit classes, which are more readily available in higher-income schools.

“When kids come in and they’re beyond the basics, the folks [at the program] do the best they can, but they can’t offer what a school district can,” Wilkerson said.

Fighting for her future

Nineteen-year-old Seaira Caldwell doesn’t blame the teachers or administrators at KIPP University Prep in San Antonio for the detour her life took May 16, 2016. She doesn’t blame the classmate who saw the gun in her backpack and turned her in. She doesn’t blame the judge who sentenced her.

She takes responsibility for her mistake, even if the repercussions went far beyond anything she could have anticipated.

It didn’t matter, Caldwell explained, that she was an all-A’s-and-B’s student, a student ambassador, with no previous disciplinary record (“not even a write-up!” she said) and no intent to harm anyone.

It was a gun. It was at school.

She was 16, in that kind of teenage love every kid thinks will last forever. Then her grandfather died, and her father, after eight years as a single dad, decided to remarry. For Caldwell, the oldest of three, “My normal was changing.”

She started talking back to teachers — it was the most rebellious she had ever been. When her boyfriend told her he was in danger and asked her to steal one of her dad’s guns for him, she didn’t question him. He asked her to deliver the gun to his brother, who went to her school.

A classmate saw the gun, and when the front office called for Caldwell over the loudspeaker on the last class of the day, she said, “I knew they knew.”

She’d never been called to the principal’s office before.

From there, Caldwell recalled, the process was like machinery. Mandatory police reports became mandatory sentences, both inside and outside of school.

KIPP staff rallied for Caldwell. They found a lawyer to represent her pro bono, testified on her behalf and wrote letters to the judge. She credits their involvement for her sentence getting knocked down to a class A misdemeanor instead of a felony.

“We didn’t want this behavior choice to negatively impact the rest of her days,” said Mark Larson, who was CEO of KIPP San Antonio at the time. “What we tried to do is what anybody of means would do for their kid.”

Larson made it clear that he believes carrying firearms to school should be treated seriously, even with expulsion. However, knowing the situation around Caldwell’s infraction, he wanted to make sure she wasn’t totally derailed.

She got probation and community service, and her probation officer let her count her fast-food job. KIPP administrators let her know they would welcome her back when her mandatory one-year expulsion was over.

Caldwell could have recovered from her detour completely if it hadn’t been for one detail: She was expelled at the end of her sophomore year, meaning she would spend her entire junior year in juvenile justice. Meanwhile, her classmates at KIPP were beginning work on their International Baccalaureate diplomas, a rigorous two-year program with a special curriculum delivered by specially trained teachers.

For Caldwell, missing an entire year of International Baccalaureate instruction was impossible to recover, and the juvenile justice program didn’t have the resources. When she left the program at the start of her senior year, she couldn’t catch up to her classmates at KIPP, so she decided to go to her neighborhood school, Roosevelt High School. She took the most advanced classes she could, but without pre-AP and other AP prerequisites, the highest-level courses weren’t available to her. She went ahead and applied to her dream school, Baylor University, but knew that without the International Baccalaureate or more AP credits, it was a long shot. She didn’t get in; instead she is going to a local community college, working her way through and commuting across town. She’s determined to achieve her nursing license, but, she acknowledged, there are a lot more things to juggle along this route than there would have been if she’d arrived at Baylor with an IB diploma — worth two years of college credit.

Privilege points

It’s possible that reform could be on the way, Korman said — at least in part because the rising popularity of boutique marijuana products and expanding mandatory-expulsion laws have increased the number of middle-class kids caught in the system.

“I wonder to what extent we’re going to see some of these laws and regulations rolled back as they start to affect the kids for whom they were not intended,” she said. Already, she said, she’s seen momentum for reform as people raise alarm about students from suburban homes having their academic careers derailed.

“The reaction from that is quite telling,” Korman said, as in the past, the lives destroyed by mandatory expulsions weren’t lives that society had much hope for.

Rodriguez, who is both Hispanic and middle class, feels the tension acutely. For him, getting in trouble scraped the thin veneer off the inequities that had marked his own education. The fact that so much was available in one school district (North East) and not another (San Antonio) still bothers him.

His internal struggle with his own privilege continues as he tries to decide what steps come next. Through his parents’ connections and resources in the music and arts industries, Rodriguez knows he can take an alternative route toward success, one that may or may not involve a high school diploma and a degree from a four-year university. In the months since his expulsion, he’s finished work on an indie music album and found out that he won a gold medal in the Scholastic Art Competition for a project he did through a local nonprofit. He’s tempted, he said, to cash in on his own social capital and breathe a sigh of relief that his departure from the set path didn’t end in disaster.

On the other hand, he sees public education as a social good. He wants to play by the rules, believing that when people do so, they contribute to a fairer system — even for kids whose parents don’t have the resources to rescue them.

Disclosure: The 74’s CEO, Stephen Cockrell, served as director of external impact for the KIPP Foundation from 2015 to 2019. He played no part in the reporting or editing of this story. Andy Rotherham co-founded Bellwether Education Partners. He sits on The 74’s board of directors and serves as one of the site’s senior editors.

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