Dignity in Schools campaign calls on lawmakers to end “zero tolerance” policies

Photo credit": Alice Ollstein
Photo credit": Alice Ollstein

Students and activists from across the country went to Capitol Hill this week to demand lawmakers set education policy that encourages students instead of criminalizing them. New data from the Department of Education shows students of color as young as preschoolers are suspended at rates several times those of white students. The federal report released last week found that while just 16 percent of total students are Black, they make up 27 percent of those referred to law enforcement and 31 percent of those who receive a school-related arrest. Other minority groups, English language learners and students with disabilities have also been disproportionately impacted by the drastic increase in school policing known as the “school to prison pipeline.” FSRN’s Alice Ollstein has more from Washington DC.

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Students, parents and teachers from Louisiana, North Carolina, New York and many other states came to DC this week to tell lawmakers how current “zero tolerance” school discipline policies are affecting their communities.

Some of them, including Kevin Boggess with Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, described what happens when school discipline focuses more on punishment than support. “What we’re seeing is that black and brown students are being targeted, being pushed out of school and not given a chance to be successful and reach their dreams and their goals,” said the California-based activist.

Boggess and other advocates working with the national “Dignity in Schools” campaign have drafted a policy platform they call “You can’t build peace with a piece.” It includes demands that schools across the country eliminate vague infractions that carry suspension and expulsion repercussions, such as “willful defiance and disorderly conduct.” They also want a moratorium on security infrastructure like armed guards, barbed wire fences, metal detectors, surveillance cameras and handcuffs, which they say treat students like criminals.

“In the same way that schools were built to look and run like factories at the turn of the century to prepare youth of color, immigrant youth or poor white youth for factory conditions, you have young people now in schools that are preparing them for a prison economy,” said Kim McGill of the Los Angeles Youth Justice Coalition. She described the policies her local public schools as “dehumanizing,” citing instances of students being pulled out of class to be frisked or searched, given out-of-school suspension for talking back to a teacher or turned over to law enforcement for many issues that used to be handled within schools. For example, fights can now get a student “sent to the front door of juvenile hall,” instead of to the principal’s office.

McGill said her community has had to push back against calls for more police and armed security in schools in the wake of several high profile school shootings in other parts of the country.

Other advocates said they hope a new report released by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights provides the hard numbers needed to convince lawmakers unmoved by personal stories. “We know stuff has been happening with our children,” commented Joyce Parker of Greenville, Mississippi “but we have not been able to get the data and put our hands on it.”

It’s the first study of its kind since President George W. Bush signed the controversial No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, a law whose high-stakes testing regime has encouraged schools to push out low-performing students. Students at this week’s rally held signs referring to that policy as “no child left behind bars.”

It’s also the first ever federal study to include comprehensive data on suspensions and arrests at both traditional public, technical and charter schools. The findings are stark. Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students, and Black girls in particular are suspended more often “than girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys.” This trend starts in students’ very first years in school, where African Americans are already disproportionately given out-of-school suspensions.

“Preschool, y’all!” called out Joyce Parker at the Washington demonstration. “This is not seventh grade. This ain’t eighth grade. These are 4-year-olds being suspended.” Parker and the other community leaders met with congressional staffers this week and urged them to pass the Restorative Justice Act, which would steer funding towards providing more counseling and mediation for school disciplinary problems, and reward students for good behavior. They say even with the current gridlock in Congress, they hope to find support to prevent so many young people from being pushed “from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse.”

(Photo credit: Alice Ollstein)

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