• Marie Tattiana Aqeel

Stand With Students

A week ago, at the snack stand on First and K Streets NE, I asked a group of Duke Ellington School students what they thought about the rally that they had just staged in front of the Office of the State Superintendent of Education on First St. NE. One student said, “I feel like they didn’t take us seriously,” referring to the three OSSE administrative workers who came outside to confront the crowd of 30+ students who gathered on Wednesday afternoon to protest broadly sweeping allegations of residency fraud issued in letters from OSSE to over 150 of the 600+ student body. When one of the three workers asked the student group if they were in support of students who live outside of the District, I wondered what would have happened had the students said what I heard so many of them tout during the rally: these allegations are not confirmed; we want an apology from OSSE administrators and from the media for intentionally defacing our school’s name; we want OSSE to fairly address the unaffordable housing crisis before they implement tighter observation over residency; and especially, what is OSSE doing to protect Black students from DC where gentrification affects them mostly. The administrator repeatedly pressed, “Are you talking about students who live outside of the District?” Really, there wasn’t much room to discuss the letters sent to students’ parents who do live in the District, or those who are sheltered in DC and living homeless, as one student spoke up about. If you live in a homeless shelter in DC, can you really be classified as a non-resident? The OSSE administrator sort of waved the students off at the end of her unidirectional drive, gesturing with the backs of her hands toward them in a sweeping motion while saying, “go ahead.” One student responded with something like, we’re not asking for permission.

All this was happening as police officers- two officers in all black uniforms with bullet-proof vests and guns strapped to their bodies- stood by watching. Two other officers in the more commonly seen blue uniform shirts had appeared earlier to ask the students to move aside to clear a path so that people exiting the building could walk in between the crowd. They now stood around talking to the police couple in all black. To be clear, none of the departing workers had visible problems that amounted to more than annoyance. Toward the police, I thought to myself, “You just gotta say something, hunh”? I asked one of the students to share his reaction to the police presence: “The police here [shows me that OSSE administrators] feel our presence.” He rhetorically asks, “Why would they have to call the police?” This question came just moments after one student pleaded into a group-shared megaphone, “They are criminalizing us!” Indeed it does seem like excessive criminalization when you hear stories like this one: a student’s mother, who works for DC government and lives in DC, received a letter from OSSE accusing her of residency fraud. When she went to the Office to correct the matter, personnel there declined to address the issue. But fraud is a serious offense to be accused of. Just ask the Washington Post, which published articles in April that blamed and shamed Duke Ellington administrators and featured premature commentary on the matter from several city council members and the Mayor. Since then, OSSE has stated that their office would thoroughly and justly review all alleged cases of fraud that appear in their initial investigation report. However, they have not notified Ellington School administrators of which families are implicated, and they confiscated all the students records from the school.

I stand with students and parents who are now seeking retribution for the way OSSE sloppily reported their investigation finding. I also stand with students and teachers who have had to deal with the aftermath of being publicly slandered by the media when the Washington Post wrote biased articles against the school before confirming the validity of OSSE’s allegations. The week before last, the Ellington School held a press conference where six students who live in the District spoke publicly about the letters they received and what it did to there families. Students at the rally said that there were no reporters from the Washington Post present at the press conference. I will stand to hear students’ voices in the communities at the frayed ends of an increasingly widening socio-economic split that DC has come to be for many of us who grew up here. #standwithstudents

--In students' own words: “Stop the investigation. Give us our education.”

“People can’t even afford to live here anymore. I think there’s like a deeper plan… because they want more white people to be in the schools. Gentrification is a big part of it. My mother is a DC resident and there was a time she couldn’t even afford her own house, because they’re raising the prices and stuff due to gentrification We could have been out of here. Now I would have been committing fraud. There are different factors to this. Some people can’t even afford to live here.”

“The Washington Post has released several incredibly biased articles about this case. And we the student body are not going to let this slide. We are here to protest the way that OSSE has treated us.” The students then chant, “Fight for our futures!”

“Know that they’re using government funding for people of color and they’re upset about that. And what they’re doing now is ripping away things that people of color have created as home. Not only are they ripping away our education, they’re ripping away future.” “DC has been going through major gentrification. And they are now allowing for not just them to take the homes, not just them to take the areas where people used to hang out, but now they’re taking the education from people of color and from under-privileged students.”

“DC enrollment fraud is not just something that’s going on at Duke Ellington. It is something going on in DC due to the fact that everybody is pushed out into other areas. But why is Duke Ellington the only school that is getting these enrollment [fraud] letters? Because of our recent renovation to the new Georgetown building. They don’t want us in Georgetown.”

“It’s not right to accuse people. You have to have facts. You can’t just come up to somebody and be like, ‘I heard you don’t live here.’ Where’s the facts? Where’s OSSE getting this information from? Where’s the evidence? I have friends that are in jeopardy of not coming to Duke [Ellington] next year. Where are they going to go? Their old addresses aren’t even existent no more. Please do not accuse if you do not know.”

“The way that this is being presented is as an act of criminalization. They’re turning children into not even students anymore. They’re not students, they’re not children. The only thing that they are in the eyes of OSSE and DCPS and the Washington Post, is fraudulent. That’s why we’re here, because we’re more than the taxes our parents pay or don’t pay or the places where we live or the money we can afford to pay for a public institution.”

"[OSSE] labels us a target. They were not just talking about enrollment fraud. They were trying to take our school down. You’re talking about 164 students out of a 600 student body. That doesn’t make any sense. They’re trying to make us a statistic, and [by us being] here today, we’re proving that we will not be the statistic, we will not be numbers, we are people, we have stories and we will share them.”

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