BOSTON >> Amanda Ceide's son Kiernan, then 5, was suspended from his charter school six times in three months for what she described to reporters Wednesday as "very minor incidences."
Malikka Williams said her son Malik, also 5, was suspended 16 times over the course of a school year.
"Having your child being suspended from school at 5 years old 16 times takes you to a place of you asking yourself constantly, what did you do wrong? What did you eat? What else can you do?" Williams said. "And I've always been an active parent."
Describing their families' experiences with multiple suspensions, the two mothers joined other members of the Save Our Public Schools coalition — a group opposing a November ballot question that would allow more charter schools in Massachusetts — to announce a push for more information on charter school student discipline.
The effort — which charter expansion supporters blasted as a "politically motivated" distraction from "real issues" — includes a hotline that parents and students can call to report their experiences with charter school suspensions.
Expansion opponents including Save Our Public Schools say that charter schools siphon away resources from traditional district schools. Proponents of charter expansion, including Great Schools Massachusetts, the coalition supporting the ballot question, say they offer academic opportunities to students who would otherwise lack access to them.
"In communities with the most demand and the highest number of charters, charter schools actually have far lower attrition rates — meaning, more students are staying in school and succeeding," Great Schools Massachusetts spokeswoman Eileen O'Connor said in a statement. "But politically motivated opponents are trying to distract from the real issues and preserve their union jobs and the status quo. Parents who are desperate to get their kids into a charter school should call the hotline and tell SOPS to stop their shameless campaign of half truths and falsehoods."
Ceide and Williams joined six other parents and educators in sending a letter to state officials asking the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to provide detailed data on charter school suspensions.
"I feel that the disciplinary policies need to be reviewed at charter schools," Ceide said. "There's not very much oversight over what principals are able to do in charter schools, and that's no way for a 5-year-old student to start his career in education."
The letter to Education Secretary Jim Peyser and Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell Chester requests the most recent three years of data on down how many children are suspended multiple times at each charter school. The group asks for a breakdown of how many students at each level of suspension stay in the charter for the full school year, return to their local district or drop out of school.
"We request that DESE provide this data broken out by race/ethnicity as well as English language learner, economically disadvantaged, and disability status so that the public can determine whether disparities exist," the letter reads.
The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education publishes on its website a student discipline report for all public schools, including charters, listing the percentage of students suspended in- and out-of-school, with those numbers broken down by gender, race, and other traits including disabilities and status as English language learner or economically disadvantaged. It also posts a breakdown of the number of school days students miss because of disciplinary actions.
"The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education continues to collect and review discipline data for all of the Commonwealth's public schools and is encouraged that the implementation of new student discipline regulations that discourage reliance on long-term suspensions has resulted in a decline of over 10,000 suspensions statewide," Chester said in a statement. "We announced in June that we are convening a group of schools with high or disproportionate rates of suspension to identify strategies for building engaged, orderly, constructive learning environments while limiting the use of suspension."
Peyser said the state will "continue to collect and carefully review discipline data" and that attrition rates at public charter schools across Massachusetts are "nearly equal to the statewide average for all public schools."
The letter requesting more data said voters would need to know how students and families are affected by charter suspension rates before they are asked to decide whether to increase the number of charter schools allowed in the state.
Marlena Rose of the Boston Education Justice Alliance said additional numbers would "show that parents aren't alone in their struggle."
"We want to make sure that this data comes out, that it's not our children, it is the practices of these discipline policies," Rose said. "It is this data that we would like to be reported to the parents so the parents can make a better informed decision about the charter schools."
Callers to the hotline are greeted by a recording encouraging them to leave a message describing their experience with charter school suspensions and to leave a phone number so an organizer can contact them.
Question 2 on the Nov. 8 ballot will ask Massachusetts voters whether to allow state education officials to approve up to 12 new charter schools or enrollment expansions per year.