Before she committed suicide at age 15, Beyer High freshman Doneisha Neal played on school sports teams and dreamed of being a lawyer. But teen drama sent her life sideways, quickly escalating into a proposed transfer to alternative education.
She chose death instead, her mother told the Modesto City Schools board on Monday, the two-year anniversary of Neal’s death. She chastised the district for its treatment of her child, and said having better information about her options or an administrator willing to take her calls might have made all the difference.
Board members and district administrators were unable to comment about the case or answer the mother during public comment period. But much of the meeting was taken up with community reaction to issues surrounding Neal’s suicide.
“She just wanted to go to school,” mother Latisha Cypriah said, wiping away tears. “She always had good grades because I kept drilling it in her head – go to school, go to school – because we struggled a lot and I just wanted my daughter to get her education.”
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While Cypriah said her story was not about race, she prefaced her remarks with a comment that Modesto treats black children badly. Neal was black, and the friend she fought with was white. It was not clear what consequences the white student faced.
Community members, in response, asked the board why teachers still have not had implicit bias training required of administrators and campus supervisors. The training aims to have people recognize their own blind spots, and includes information on the lives of very poor and minority children that can make them less attentive or more prone to anger.
“We’ve got to educate the teachers,” NAACP President Frank Johnson told the board.
Students said bullying on campuses and social media made everyone less safe. “Nobody deserves (to be bullied), but nothing is done about it,” said high school student Crystal Martinez. She and other students said they saw no action taken when bullying was reported.
Advocates also blamed school district policies on involuntary alternative education placements in Neal’s death. Neal was suspended for three days for pushing a former friend and two additional days for yelling at school personnel, her mother said. Instead of returning to Beyer after her five-day suspension, however, Neal was told she would be transferred to another school or into alternative education.
Involuntary transfers within a district can avoid having a student expelled, or separate two teens with a conflict. Expulsions send kids to county office programs, run by a different administration. The process is more formal and must include parents.
Neal was to be sent to a different school, either to regular classes or to a single classroom program for students with academic or behavioral problems. Either way, she would be leaving the teams she played on, the after-school program where she mentored younger students, and the friends she had known since junior high.
The Advocates for Justice community group, which spoke after Cypriah, advocated an end to involuntary transfers of all kinds, and for a family advocate for suspended students. Both were on a 13-point plan they proposed to improve communication with families and better support students.
After the meeting, Modesto City Schools released a statement via email: “Losing a child is devastating, and our hearts go out to the student’s loved ones. We cannot comment on a specific student’s history, however, we can say that we have a tiered system of supports in place to help our students with mental health and discipline concerns. We also follow our conduct code which outlines behavior expectations and progressive consequences.”