ACLU claims Cottonwood school is discriminating with ‘scarlet badges’

By: - January 2, 2019 3:50 pm

Jordan Pickett’s red badge, which is at the center of the controversy. Photo by ACLU of Arizona

The Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is claiming a Cottonwood high school is discriminating against students and violating federal law with a badge policy they’ve called “scarlet badges.”

Mingus High School recently implemented a color-coded badge policy that, at face value, is for security purposes.

Upperclassmen get gray badges with their grade number on it and underclassmen get red badges. The aim is to allow for security and staff to know which students are allowed off campus during lunch and which are not.

But some juniors and seniors who have fallen behind academically and are missing credits are being given red badges.

“When you’re walking around displaying the fact that you failed at something, you can’t get away from that,” Jennifer Lansman, the mother of student Jordan Pickett, said to the Mirror.

Lansman’s daughter is a junior who was given a red badge. Pickett has had to miss multiple classes due to a diagnosis of anemia which requires specialty doctors in Phoenix. Because of her numerous absences, the school took away credits she had earned. That means she has fewer credits than her junior classmates, which is why her badge is red instead of gray.

The gray badge has led to bullying and a feeling of being singled out by her teachers and peers, Lansman said.

Pickett and a friend are at the center of a letter sent to the school by the ACLU to the school outlining what the civil rights group sees as a violation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA.

FERPA is a federal law that protects the privacy of student education records, including family information, test scores, grades and disciplinary records.

It is unknown how many upperclassmen were assigned red badges.

“A lot of people are misconstruing this as these two students are upset about missing lunch privileges,” Lansman said. “It’s important to her that other students and faculty don’t look at her and go, ‘Oh there is something not 100 percent there.’”

The school responded to the ACLU’s letter Wednesday stating that it has not violated any laws, and defending the policy as necessary for school safety.

“[T]he District denies that it has violated any laws or rights of the student as you have alleged in your letter,” attorney Susan Segal said in her letter on behalf of the school. “Your colleague has argued that the students should not be required to wear badges or that the badges should not be in different colors. However, the determination is one for the District and Governing board – not the ACLU. And, as you are probably aware, courts are loathe to micromanage school districts.”

Pickett and her friend, Jonah Ray, brought their concerns to the school board back in September.

Ray, who is in individualized education programs for a learning disability, didn’t fall behind in credits for skipping out of class or not paying attention.

His advisor had told him he needed two credits of a foreign language if he planned to go to college right out of high school. He wasn’t planning on that, but decided he’d take the credits anyway.

Ray quickly began to feel overwhelmed in his Spanish class and failed. The next semester, he was given a red badge.

“No one wants to fail a class,” Ray said. “No one wants to purposefully put themselves in the position where I am now.”

So Ray and Lansman took their cases to the Mingus Union High School District governing board in September. Nothing seemed to come of it.

But before the meeting in September, Ray was approached by the principal, who informed him he’d be getting a gray badge.

gray badge
Jonah Ray was given a gray badge after bringing concerns to the school. Submitted photo.

“I walked away feeling like he kinda just gave me the card and pushed me away thinking I wouldn’t go any further,” Ray said.

But Ray and Pickett did go further.

They took the issue to the ACLU, which sent a letter to the school outlining the three areas where it is breaking the law, according to the ACLU:

  • Revealing private educational information of students, which is a violation of FERPA
  • Discriminating against children with disabilities
  • Violating the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment

The school denies the claims and insists that the badges are for safety and so staff knows who is who.

In its response to the ACLU, the school said Pickett does not have enough credits to become a junior, which is why her badge is red. Segal, the attorney, also added that the school will seek a special meeting with Lansman to discuss the issue.

Furthermore, the school contends that a student’s grade level is not protected information, and parents must “opt out” or request that their child’s grade level is not disclosed.

Ray and Pickett have watched the school’s social structure morph as a result of the badges.

“It’s just created this social monarchy,” Ray said, adding that he wants the school to “understand that kids can be cruel and they will find any weakness that you have and will tear away at it until nothing is left.”

Ray has already begun to experience that cruelty.

He said he was bullied during a class introduction when he said he liked to study history. A classmate yelled, “If that was true than why does he have a red badge? Are you stupid?”

“The minute you’re an upperclassman and you have a red (badge), you’re singled out,” Lansman said.

Lansman worries that students returning from winter break will return and find the color of their badge shifting from gray to red.

Many are already finding ways to fight the badge policy by covering them with stickers, Lansman said.

Ray just wants people at his school to be treated equally and not be singled out, he said.

“We’re fighting for something that we believe in and people just think we are spoiled brats that want to go out for lunch,” Ray lamented, adding, “we are being taught through our curriculum to fight for something you believe in, and this is something Jordan and I believe in.”

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.