When most kids get expelled from school, we think they usually did something bad, right? But could you imagine getting expelled from school for crossing underneath a train to avoid being late? Well, it did happen at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), a prestigious art school, to a bright young man named Rahsaan Ison, a few years ago. Crossing. Underneath. A. Train.
I had the privilege of spending a week in New Orleans for a college service trip earlier this year. During that time, I did a lot of work in the New Orleans community and this is also where I met Rahsaana Ison, Rahsaan’s mother. After spending nearly two hours with her and hearing about the horrific events that unfolded in regards to her son at NOCCA, it became evidently apparent that this is something we all should know about, yet almost nobody does. So here is their story:
Rahsaana described her son as dedicated. He rapped and produced music videos (and still does). He helps produce films. He went to Grammy Camp, where he was selected for audio engineering (something he learned at NOCCA) and competed with thousands of students like himself. He was a talented artist, ready to gain the tools and knowledge to excel while at NOCCA. And he was already pretty good.
Before NOCCA, he was a model student who showed great ingenuity. He was a straight “A” student who, by the 8th grade, already had his own local bow tie business in New Orleans.
According to Rahsaana, he also wasn’t afraid to expose the problems in his education (charter schools, something New Orleans transitioned to over a decade ago). He was troubled by the lack of consistency, as teachers would rotate in and out of positions frequently. He advocated for himself and his peers, trying to ensure as rigorous and beneficial of an education as possible.
Rahsaana believes that in reality, that made him a nuisance for NOCCA, an itch they so desperately wanted to scratch. So when he went underneath that train, a violation of the student handbook, they had their ammunition. No suspension, warning, detention, etc. for this passionate young freshman. Just expulsion.
But it was only fitting that this happened right across from the Plessey v. Ferguson memorial. A case deeply rooted with oppression and racism, symbolic of what would become of Rahsaan. Despite being a minor at the time, Rahsaana said that NOCCA made Rahsaan sign his own release papers, and sent him on his way. As Rahsaana put it:
They only treated him like an adult when he began to advocate and sound like one.
But, his story didn’t end there, it only began. Rahsaana was desperate. Due to hurricane Katrina, she was homeless and was a recently fired educator as the city began to wipe its education field clean. She told her story to anyone who would listen, until FFLIC, Family and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children, and its founder Gina Womack, heard her it.
Eventually, Rahsaan was let back in school and the case was overturned. Rahsaana credits Ashana Bigard, an employee of FFLIC, for advocating and fighting for her son throughout the entirety of his career at NOCCA. She was only an educator. All Rahsaana could do was protest and fight back endlessly (making her unable to work), along side her community, for 21 days for her child’s education. But Ashana and FFLIC got Rahsaan back in school. And while Rahsaana now knows how to organize and advocate for other children, she was ultimately lost until FFLIC helped her family.
But Rashaana also said the tormenting didn’t end there. She said NOCCA tried to suspend him again for having the same conclusion as his four white peers (it was a group project). She explained that a white teacher taped a “Homer Plessy” sign to his back and forced him to wear it for half of the school day. He was isolated from his peers completely. She described countless instances where Rahsaan was singled out because of who he was and what he stood for.
Despite all of that, his mother explained that Rahsaan never gave up. He could’ve easily left NOCCA, the hate, and the tormenting and just transferred.
But every time she asked him to leave NOCCA, his response was “I just want to finish.”
He showed incredible resiliency and perseverance, so much so, that it should be inspiring to almost anyone.
However that being said, this is not a happy story with a fairytale ending. All of the trauma Rahsaan endured led to the climax of his problems with NOCCA: his senior year. For starters, his Spanish class (a graduation requirement) was scheduled during his lunch block. Eat or study? A question he had to contemplate every single day. Rahsaana then says that NOCCA told Rahsaan he would not graduate and that he failed Spanish. In an attempt to walk the stage, he did a year’s worth of homework in two days, yet was still denied two hours before graduation (NOCCA said that he did not complete the final month of work, something Rashaana said he did not have access to). He missed graduation and the chance to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment surrounded by his peers and loved ones and only just recently got his diploma.
And while Rahsaana is on her feet and living comfortably with her family, because of all this, Rahsaan wasn’t able to go to college and lost out on scholarships. His path to adulthood and success was dramatically altered. Nobody knows about his story and it is incredibly dangerous if that continues. He is a symbol of systematic oppression and is something Secretary of Education Betsey DeVos doesn’t want you to hear about.
His entire life course has been altered by what happened. Rahsaana said she’s heard so many similar cases to those her son experienced and it’s only a matter of time before another child becomes a victim. Suspensions and expulsions don’t work. They teach ruthlessness and rather than mentor and develop young children before the enter the adult world, it insinuates that its easier to just dispose of them as schools please. Education should be flexible and equitable for all, and its time we held institutions to those standards both in New Orleans, and all across the country.
All details from this article are from the account of Rahsaana Ison, Rahsaan Ison’s mother, if you would like to reach out to the family and help their cause and continued fight, or express your support, please contact Anthony Buonopane, the author of this article at firstname.lastname@example.org with an explanation of why you are reaching out, thank you!