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School To Prison: Organizers Lead Action Against School Pushout In Communities of Color

Isaac Moody |
October 21, 2014 | 4:14 p.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Nearly thirty years ago students found fighting in school, disrupting a classroom or skipping class might have ended up in detention. Today, there’s a good chance that they will end up suspended, expelled or in prison, especially if they are a minority.

“Systematically, if you look at who’s not succeeding in our systems of schools, who’s being kicked out, who’s being punished and who’s not graduating, you’ll see that it’s predominately boys of color," said Roberet Howard, Leader of The California Conference for Equality and Justice (CCEJ).  

Howard works extensively in the Long Beach school district. When there is a conflict amongst students, he helps find solutions to the problem as opposed to kicking students out, because he believes that at-risk students need an education the most.

The CCEJ is led by Dignity In Schools, a national organization that helps address issues, particularly with students of color and the school to prison pipeline. 

SEE ALSO: The Black Male: An Endangered Species?

During this week, members and allies held rallies, marches, workshops and walks to address issues in our nation’s schools, to help launch and support local campaigns of students, parents, teachers and advocates across the country, working to transform school discipline policies and practices.

These organizations define the "school to prison pipeline" as policies and practices that push schoolchildren, particularly, at-risk children and children of color, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

The CCEJ and the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) met at a Boys and Girls Club in Long Beach and invited students, parents, teachers and community members to discuss the school to prison pipeline and to brainstorm potential solutions. Before discussions began, statistics were revealed.

According to the Community Coalition, the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world. Furthermore, students of color face harsher discipline, and are more likely to be pushed out of school than whites.

40 percent of students expelled from the U.S. each year are black and 70 percent of students involved in in-school arrests are black or latino. 30 percent of foster care youth entering the juvenile justice system are behavioral cases, and 70 percent of inmates in California are former foster care youth.

This forum was also met with student volunteers, some of whom have been impacted by school pushout, violence, minor infractions and foster care.

Tanisha Denard is now a youth organizer for YJC, but a few years prior, she was arrested by school police.

“When I was in high school, I received a lot of truancy tickets. I was ticketed time and time again, and wasn’t asked for help or fully understand what these citations were.”

SEE ALSO: Mothers In Prison: Who Really Gets Hurt

Tanisha’s mother often left for work early in the morning. And without any mode of transportation, she would walk to school, often times arriving late. Her house was slightly outside the municipal district for school bus rides.

Once she arrived at school, she was ticketed and often underwent searches by school police she believes were random, and she says that these searches and citations made her feel distant from school and it discouraged her going.

In addition to not sharing the information with her mother and further not understanding the court proceedings, these unpaid tickets turned into outstanding warrants. 

“One day I was brought out of class, was handcuffed and sent to juvenile hall.” Tanisha served a month in juvenile hall, paying off the average of each citation, which, according to her, was $250.

By state law, the California Department of Education states: “A pupil subject to compulsory full-time education or to compulsory continuation education who is absent from school without a valid excuse three full days in one school year or tardy or absent for more than a 30-minute period during the school day without a valid excuse on three occasions in one school year, or any combination thereof, shall be classified as a truant and shall be reported to the attendance supervisor or to the superintendent of the school district.”

However, Tanisha felt like there was nothing she could do to prevent being late and feels that her truancies should have been discussed.

Ronnie Dunmore was expelled when he was in high school. He attended Manual Arts High School (Los Angeles) from 2009-2010, and was expelled after his first offense. “I was caught in the middle of a race riot,” he says.  According to Dunmore, the school pushed him out because he was perceived as a threat.

Amidst school push outs, there is a plethora of contributing factors: youth are discouraged by schools, and invited to a life of crime. Take Andrea Vargas for example: Vargas is a young Hispanic woman and a current high school student living in a group home. 

“I was a foster child, so growing up, we moved a lot, and because I moved so many times, as far as being enrolled in school, it made me miss out on a lot of work. Besides that, I felt brushed to the side, and wouldn’t go to school for months at a time.”

According to the California Defense Fund, there were over 700,000 suspensions given to children attending public schools in California in the 2010-2011 school year. The Defense Fund found that when a child is removed from the classroom for disciplinary action, it could result in “hours, days or weeks of lost instructional time and is more often occurring at schools primarily attended by children of color.”

A second Defense Fund studyfinds that the overuse of suspensions and expulsions on students can contribute to academic and social disengagement, which in turn could "that increases the likelihood of additional disciplinary exclusions, academic failure, and eventually, drop-out or push-out.

SEE ALSO: 'For More Teens, Arrests by Police Replace School Discipline'

These impacted youth, joined with organizers brainstormed possible solutions such as a change in school curriculum, less harmful disciplinary action and options for counseling. Although community organizers attribute the pipeline as a result of stigmatizing and punishing certain behaviors, school officials say that they resist suspending and expelling students, and only do so under extenuating circumstances.

Shawn Ashley, principal at Jordan High School Long Beach says, “I think there’s two victims in this case, one victim is the young man or the young woman that is disrupting the class, they’re a victim of their behavior because they are preventing themselves from getting an education, but we also have a responsibility to the other 37 kids who are sitting in that class.”

Aside from securing the classroom from disruptive behavior, discipline is also based on privilege and reputation.

Jack Graham, Deputy Probation Officer Jordan high school of Long Beach has dealt with every kind of student, “Usually, if the kid is in violation of a school policy-get’s into a fight, and that’s not his first time, usually they give him a day’s suspension.”

He says, “I have kids on my caseload that are first time offenders, making good grades in school, both parents in the household. Then I have kids on my caseload who come from single-parent households, don’t have the support, get involved with gangs and become a criminal.”

Graham believes that a child should be responsible for their behavior, and holds them accountable for their behavior.

“We try not to suspend students, we try and use detention, we try and use counseling, we try and use a number of things before we get to suspension,” says Principal Ashley at Jordan High. However, he confirms that students of color are suspended at a greater rate.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “the pipeline begins with inadequate resources in public schools such as overcrowded classrooms, lack of qualified teachers, insufficient funding for counselors and there is a zero-tolerance policy that pushes students out of the learning environment, into alternative schools.” The ACLU also found that students are more likely than their white peers to be suspended, expelled, or arrested for the same kind of conduct at school, and up to 80% of these court involved children do not have lawyers.” 

Yet the LAUSD has confirmed that suspensions have significantly reduced. “For all of last year, we only had 110 expulsions for the entire district,” says Isabelle Villalobos, Coordinator for Student Discipline at the LAUSD. 

The LA school district is the second-largest district in the country, holding almost 5 million students. Villalobos emphasizes that there are five things that a student is expelled for: firearms, sexual battery, assault, selling of narcotics and brandishing a knife.

SEE ALSO: Legalize Weed, But Don't Forget Those Behind Bars

School Police share the same sentiment and hold discipline as a priority.

Officer Brian Wright, Los Angeles School PD says, “We now are focusing on restorative justice. So, normally a child who would be sent to juvenile hall is now seeking peer mediation.”

He adds, “We’re changing, ticketing is nearly abolished, and now there is a diversion program that provides counseling to referred students.”

However, according to strategycenter.org, there were 38,000 citations that were given, and they were issued to students of color.

Despite California’s steep decline in juvenile crime and incarceration rates, the state continues to spend millions of dollars to help counties finance the renovation and expansion of juvenile halls and camps, according to the Chronicle of Social Change. They found that the California Board of State Community Corrections (BSCC) oversees adult and juvenile correctional facilities, and will give out nearly $80 million available in lease-revenue bonds to support expansion of the state’s bed capacity.

California has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, and according to Gov. Jerry Brown’s 2012-13 budget $1 billion more went to prison spending than to higher education. 

Mark Anthony Johnson, Director for Dignity and Power Now works to end sheriff violence in jails. He also partners with Youth Build Charter School of California, an organization that helps recover school dropouts between the ages of 16 and 24.

He says, “There’s a lot of buzz talking about the militarization of law enforcement in schools.”

According to an LA Times article, the LAUSD police acquired three grenade launchers and 61 assault rifles from the Department of Defense. The article states that over $5 billion in surplus military equipment has been distributed to law enforcement agencies nationwide, including school police, since 1997. Although school officials say that guns and other equipment are needed to prevent potential tragedies, they have never been used. 

“I think it’s just a social policy of racism,” says Ashley Franklin. Franklin is an organizer for the Labor Communities Strategy Center Community Rights Campaign.

SEE ALSO: California Prison Reform: Assessing Realignment 

She says, “The communities rights campaign has been doing a lot to change and shift some of the culture from a criminalizing one to one that’s more inclusive, and make students want to be inside of schools.”

She works closely with impacted youth, whom she calls the driving force behind the organization because they have been responsible for successfully drafted a protection plan aiming to reduce citing students for truancies, disturbing the peace and vandalism.

The organization works closely with the LAUSD as well as the city council and has also urged for school counselors in response to school discipline issues.

The school pushout week concluded in Long Beach. CCEJ organizers and youth scurried the city’s districts, walking door-to-door, to inform their neighbors on California Proposition 47 and urge them to vote for the upcoming November ballot.

Proposition 47, is the Reduced Penalties for Some Crimes Initiative and if approved by the state’s voters, would reduce “non-serious and nonviolent property and drug crimes” from a felony to a misdemeanors. The initiative would permit re-sentencing for anyone currently serving a prison sentence for non-serious, nonviolent crimes, unless the defendant has prior convictions for murder, rape, sex offenses and gun crimes.

Felonies such as shoplifting, grand theft, fraud, forgery, and receiving stolen property would change to misdemeanors. The measure is also said to create a Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Fund.

The ballot opens November 4th, and allows all Californians to vote.

Reach Staff Reporter Isaac Moody here



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