The Real School of Hard Knocks

Eight-year-old Benlee Bruneau began having problems last year in his class for gifted students at the North Dade Center for Modern Languages, a magnet school in Opa-locka. According to reports filed by teachers, Benlee, who is Haitian American, was bothering other students, and his once sterling grades began dropping. The same problems re-emerged at the beginning of the current school year. Benlee's mother Mateline Bruneau says her son had been fine until he transferred to the magnet school last year, and she doesn't understand why he's suddenly in trouble.

So Bruneau, like any concerned parent, tried to find out what was going wrong. She requested meeting after meeting with administrators and teachers, meticulously inspected copies of Benlee's records, and visited his classroom during school hours. Before long Bruneau had become a great irritation to the people running her son's school.

Two and a half weeks ago the situation went from parental concern to parental arrest. On Monday, December 1, while in the principal's office, Bruneau was handcuffed by the Miami-Dade County School Board Police and taken to the county's Turner Guilford Knight detention center. Charged with the criminal misdemeanors of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest without violence, Bruneau, 45 years old and unable to work because of spinal and hip injuries, couldn't make the $1000 bond and spent the night in jail.

The police report states that Bruneau had become hostile and "out of control" after being asked to leave the school grounds. Bruneau and her seventeen-year-old daughter Rachelle St. Charles, who had accompanied her to the principal's office to pick up a report on her son's conduct, insist Bruneau did nothing to provoke such drastic action; she merely protested, they say, after a school officer warned her she would no longer be allowed on school property.

Whatever the truth, according to Haitian American Parents Association vice president Marie Jean Philippe, this confrontation is only "the most extreme" among numerous incidents of inappropriate treatment of Haitians in the public schools. "We have had parents telling us all kinds of problems they've been having at school," Philippe says. "You wouldn't believe what has happened. But we've never had a parent arrested by the police."

"Given the history of the interactions between Mrs. Bruneau and the school system, there's an appearance that this arrest was in retaliation for her complaints," says Terry Coble, an attorney with Legal Services of Greater Miami who is representing Bruneau in her efforts to seek redress from the school district for several alleged incidents of discrimination against Benlee. (Coble isn't representing Bruneau in the criminal matter but considers the arrest the most serious example of alleged discrimination suffered by either mother or son.)

Coble and the Haitian American Parents Association have written separate letters to school officials protesting both Bruneau's arrest and the treatment of her son. The administration has shown no inclination to criticize the actions of either school police or administrators.

School district spokesman Henry Fraind, to whom administrators at Benlee's school referred all inquiries, could not elaborate beyond the police report on the cause of Bruneau's arrest, writing in a faxed statement to New Times that she had "allegedly created a disturbance at the school. The mother reportedly was upset about her son's progress report." In a December 5 letter to Marie Jean Philippe, Fraind concluded, "Based on what I know about the case, I cannot confirm your accusation that Benlee is being singled out for negative treatment by the administrators and teacher.... Mrs. Bruneau's continued involvement in the education of her son is vital; however, she cannot and will not be permitted to disturb the educational environment of her son and the other children...."

A school district attorney contacted by Legal Services found nothing to support claims of discrimination against Bruneau or her son. Senior assistant school board attorney Madelyn Schere has been looking into several complaints detailed in a three-page letter from Legal Services attorney Terry Coble. Among the allegations: Benlee is being made to sit alone in a corner during class; he has been singled out to write several statements explaining why he has misbehaved and take them home for his mother's signature; he was attacked in front of the school (allegedly in front of the principal, a counselor, and a teacher) by three older students, yet no action was taken against his antagonists, although he was punished.

Schere says she is preparing a formal response but contends there's no evidence that Benlee was discriminated against because of his national origin or that he was unjustly disciplined. "I can tell you from the preliminary information I got from the principal, the complaints appear to be unjustified," Schere says.

But Mateline Bruneau contends that the principal, Maria Castaigne, has been one of the people most responsible for her son's difficulties. "So of course she's going to cover up," Bruneau protests. "They don't want him there." (Castaigne's office referred requests for comment to Henry Fraind.)

Bruneau says she was jolted about a year ago when Benlee came home with a note on his report card urging improvement in conduct. "The teacher never said anything about that before," Bruneau asserts. Talks with his teacher, the school counselor, and a psychologist -- even an emergency meeting with high-ranking administrators after Bruneau filed a formal discrimination complaint with the district's Office of Equal Educational Opportunity and Advocacy -- didn't improve the situation. She began requesting updated copies of Benlee's records about once a month.

"The mom would go to the school and they'd give her the computer printout of the disciplinary record and say it's the complete record. But in February it showed an incident report back in October," says Coble. "And later in February, all of a sudden, ones for December and January would be on there, prior to the time when she'd gotten the previous computer printout." (Reports are filled out by hand by teachers and subsequently entered into a computer.) "The numbers on the incident reports were sometimes out of sequence, too," Coble says. "Also, some were made out by teachers who didn't witness the incident."

It was one of those reports that brought Bruneau to the school's administration office on December 1. A page from the report was missing, but Bruneau and her daughter were told they could pick it up two days later. As they entered the principal's office to retrieve the incomplete report, they discovered a district police officer waiting for them.

In his arrest report, Ofcr. Henry Wright stated that he had been called to the school because Bruneau had refused repeated requests from a teacher to leave a classroom. Though she and her daughter deny having gone anywhere at the school that day except the administration office, both sides do seem to agree that at some point Officer Wright warned Bruneau not to set foot again on school grounds and that Bruneau became indignant.

Bruneau remembers heading out with the partial report. "I turned around to leave," she says, "then the officer says, 'Let me tell you, after you get this document on Wednesday, don't you ever step on this school ground again unless you have permission from the division office.' I said, 'Listen, I take my child to school. I cannot accept you to tell me that, and I'll have to tell you "Yes, I'm going to come back."' He grabbed me and said, 'You're under arrest for trespassing.' My daughter said, 'You cannot grab my mother like that,' and they almost arrested her. I told my daughter to get the name and badge number and go home. And he took me to jail. I stayed there until the next morning when the judge let me out."

Bruneau has been looking for a criminal defense attorney to take her case. "They could have issued her a notice to appear in court; they didn't have to throw her in the pokey," observes Robert Joffee, a veteran journalist, political pollster, and civic activist who himself was arrested and jailed last year by school district police as he distributed pamphlets outside a Miami Springs school. "But that's been the policy. Our school system sometimes gets rid of demanding parents by improperly exercising its police powers." (Charges against Joffee were dropped.)

The Haitian American Parents Association has written twice to Superintendent Roger Cuevas's office asking for, among other things, a meeting with administrators to discuss the Bruneau cases. As of December 12, association vice president Marie Jean Philippe hadn't heard from Cuevas and now threatens to file a federal civil rights suit. The group is scheduled to make a presentation before the school board at its meeting January 14. Says Philippe: "We're going forward with this.

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