Twelve-year-old Omar White rattled off the plot of The Hunger Games, as his mother leafed through the bestselling novel, asking questions.
Sitting on the living room floor of his family’s sparsely furnished apartment in the Northeast Bronx, the fidgety seventh grader retold the story quickly and confidently, lingering on the book’s more suspenseful moments with details about wasp stings the size of plums.
“I think the government is trying to kill the people who live in the districts,” Omar said, with a measure of pride, before launching into an explanation of the poverty and oppression that are key ingredients in the book’s brutal sport.
Hazel White listened approvingly. She knows her son should not be failing English. Yet, Omar’s report card this year from Cornerstone Academy Middle School on Steenwick Avenue in the Bronx has been riddled with “F’s.” His highest grades on his latest report card were 70s in a few classes he enjoys, like math.
White believes Omar is failing in large part because he has been pulled out of class over and over again for disruptive behavior, causing him to fall further behind.
Omar spent much of this year in an in-school suspension room called a “SAVE room.” SAVE rooms are intended for short-term punishment. In Omar’s case, he spent the greater part of October to January in one, plus a few weeks at various off-site suspension centers. It was so much time, his mother ended up filing a complaint against the city for compensation for learning time lost. The complaint also said the school failed to refer Omar for special education assessment for his behavioral issues that would have likely mandated services.
“It’s clear that Omar’s behavior interferes with his learning, and the school has a legal obligation under federal law to identify students who may need special education services,” said Andy Artz, a suspension lawyer at Legal Services NYC in the Bronx who filed the complaint.
But Cornerstone’s principal, Jamaal Bowman, said removing Omar from his classes has been the school’s only recourse for behavior that distracts the whole class, like talking back to teachers, or tapping a pencil nonstop on the desktop.
Citywide, thousands of kids Omar’s age — mostly boys — undergo suspensions or “removal from class” as it’s called under the State’s Safe Schools Against Violence in Education (SAVE) Act, passed in 2000.
In the past decade, suspensions have soared in New York, from less than 30,000 in 2002 to more than 70,000 last year. About 90 percent of suspended students are Hispanic or black, like Omar, according to a 2011 report by the New York Civil Liberties Union. Around 70 percent are boys, separate statistics obtained from the Department of Education show. For longer superintendent’s suspensions, the figure is even higher. In the Bronx, suspensions are most common in the seventh and eighth grades.
Last school year, long-term suspensions (lasting more than five days) dropped, but short-term suspensions continued to climb.
“It’s important to reduce suspensions overall, but what we really need to be doing is promoting alternatives,” said Artz, who co-authored the NYCLU report. The report calls class removals in SAVE rooms “phantom suspensions,” since they do not appear in citywide suspension statistics or on suspension data for individual schools.
“The Department of Education takes pride in the drop in superintendent’s suspensions, but there are still tens of thousands of suspensions,” said Artz. “And the number we know doesn’t include all these other cases, which could be just as many. We have no way of knowing.”
Bowman said the SAVE room was meant to be a short-term solution for Omar, who has no cognitive problems, only behavioral ones.
“If Omar could get counseling, that would help,” Bowman said.
Despite the large numbers of behavioral issues in middle schools, not all middle schools have full-time counselors. Bowman said his school would finally be able to hire one full-time next year.
“The story here is that schools need more resources,” said Bowman, who also introduced alternatives at his school for dealing with misbehavior. Cornerstone holds weekly school-wide “community circles,” where students might praise each other for good work, or apologize for causing any conflicts.
Sometimes Omar’s teachers send him to the SAVE room for one or two periods for talking too much, or making rude comments. Other times he would spend entire days there.
Unlike other classrooms, the SAVE room has no windows on either the walls or the door. Students sit in five desks lined up against the wall, one behind the other in a column facing a teacher’s desk. Two other desks at far ends of the room can seat another four.
Omar’s frustration with spending day after day there showed up in his work. In one of his vocabulary assignments from the SAVE room in November, he built a sentence with the word “conquer”: “My new goal to conquer is to stay out of the SAVE room for the rest of the year.”
His assignments are often written in an elegant script, each curve reflecting the textbook perfection of a child who has only recently learned to write cursive, and has discovered that he does it well.
Then, in January, after Omar received the first of a series of three to four long-term, off-site suspensions — called superintendent’s suspensions — Hazel White sought counsel from Artz at Legal Services.
In one incident, Omar slapped a classmate. In another, he was accused of giving a student a knife, though the knife was not found in Omar’s possession.
The complaint against the Department of Education claims that Omar did not have access to his schoolwork. Bowman, however, said Omar has a certified teacher in the SAVE room, and access to the same schoolwork that his classmates have. At the end of each day, the school sends an email to teachers, informing them who will be in the SAVE room the next morning, and asking them to deliver the day’s lessons and assignments for those students.
On April 18, the city settled White’s case claiming that the school had failed to refer Omar for behavioral testing, and that his time in the SAVE room had impaired his education. As a result, Omar is entitled to $45,000 worth of private, one-on-one tutoring paid for by the Department of Education. The tutoring will begin this month or next, and continue over the summer or next school year.
Now, sitting at home, Omar blamed his failing grades on the SAVE room. To him, hearing that he will soon receive at-home tutoring feels like the school’s way of telling him he’s “dumb.”
The series of tests he’s going through now to determine whether he needs special education or related services such as counseling exacerbate that feeling.
“I think that woman was treating me like a baby,” he said, recounting a test last week administered by a child psychologist who gave him visual puzzles to solve.
The tests are part of the city’s settlement, too. Depending on the results, Omar might be identified as having social-emotional problems that require extra support.
A neighbor and music teacher, Bevin Turnbull, who previously taught at Cornerstone and taught Omar music in the summer after retiring, said Omar was one of the brightest kids he’s worked with in two decades of teaching.
“He picked up the instruments so quickly. He could learn to play anything,” Turnbull said, recalling a warm little boy, just 10 years old when the music teacher met him. Omar took great pains to help his sister learn, too. Jada, who was 8 at the time, is his only younger sibling.
Now, two years later, Omar is barely passing his music class at Cornerstone.
In recent years, he has seen his older siblings more often than his parents. Omar’s father does not live with the family, and his mother worked until recently round-the-clock shifts as a home health attendant caring for an elderly man at his residence.
His older sister Marcia, 24, cared for Omar and Jada together with their grandmother. But in February last year, Marcia, who works at a charter school in Harlem, moved out; and earlier this year their grandmother passed away.
White, who is now taking time off to spend more time with Omar, despite the financial difficulties this poses, said she needed the nonstop hours to earn enough money to compensate for the family’s lack of insurance or benefits. The children finally got Medicaid only recently, she said.
Despite his troubles, Omar’s own capacity to learn gives him pride.
Back in his living room with his mother, Omar was eager to reveal The Hunger Game’s most tragic twist. “In the end, Katniss kills Peeta,” he said, not realizing that it’s not true. Jada had heard this from a friend and told her brother in order to spoil the ending.
Jada, sitting shyly on the arm of a sofa, let out an unsuppressed giggle at the memory. In the war of sibling rivalry, spoiling the ending for her older brother was not off-limits. She returned to her game of Operation on a desktop computer in the corner, and Omar — who is small enough occasionally to be mistaken for his sister’s younger brother — glanced over in annoyance.
“Mom, can I play awhile?” he asked, referring to the computer. Omar was the only one of his mother’s children who was denied the password to the family computer, for fear it would distract him from his homework.
“Not now, Omar,” his mom replied.
“On May 11th we’re going to see The Hunger Games at school,” Omar said, with a flash of his dimples. “I’ve read other books, too, and the movies are never as good.”
But by the time this week rolled around, Omar had been removed from his school again. On Wednesday he was at a suspension center while he waited for another superintendent’s hearing.
His older sister Marcia, who has been looking for after-school jujitsu lessons or other activities that might help Omar release his energy, said it was good news that Omar was finally undergoing special education testing, but that it should have happened much earlier.
“The school knew Omar had behavioral problems when he got there in sixth grade,” she said. “Isolating him never helped.”