NY Students Call on City and Mayoral Candidates to End School-to-Prison Pipeline at School Safety and Climate Hearing

24 Apr in
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By Sharmin Hossain and Nancy Uddin, Ya Ya Network

Plato writes, “The soul takes nothing with her to the next world but her education and her culture.” If one believes this to be true, and we do, we need to ensure every student receives a high quality education in a safe and welcoming environment.

Unfortunately, many of New York City’s public schools have an oppressive and discriminatory atmosphere, especially for the low-income students of color in our high schools.  This becomes clear when you compare the disproportionate presence of school safety officers in our schools with the high rates of racial disparities in suspensions and arrests, most of which occur for offenses like wearing a hat, tardiness, or even for being a five year-old having a temper tantrum.

Over 69,000 suspensions were given last year alone, and the overwhelming amount of Black and Latino males that faced disciplinary action were alarming, especially when you see that these communities of color are the same who are disproportionately targeted by a prison industrial complex that seeks to criminalize and incarcerate our youth.

The presence of the NYPD, the use of metal detectors, wands, random searches and the practice of calling on school safety officers to resolve conflicts - instead of counselors or teachers, in our schools are what creates a culture of fear and leads to the criminalization of our youth. And this issue is not limited to our schools. As we’ve seen from the city’s defensive response to calls from the community to end Stop and Frisk, eliminate police presence in schools and provide reparations for victims of racist NYPD violence (such as the murders of Reynaldo Cuevas, Amadou Diallo, Kimani Gray, Shantel Davis), its is clear that a culture of racism is embedded in the social fabric of New York City.

Thus, the Dignity in Schools Campaign-NY (DSC-NY) came together, uniting parents, youth, advocates and educators, to challenge the systemic problem of pushout in our city's schools and to support alternatives to a culture of zero-tolerance, punishment and removal.

After 4 years of aggressive organizing and public education led by youth, parents, teachers and advocates, in 2010 the Student Safety Act was passed and went into effect the following year. The Student Safety Act is the law that requires the Department of Education and NYPD to release data on school safety and disciplinary issues, including incidents involving arrests and suspensions of students. Unfortunately, a lot of the data is redacted and incomplete and while it has allowed us to shed light on how students of color are disproportionately being fed into the school to prison pipeline, both the DoE and NYPD need to be held accountable by the community to insure that all data released is complete and accurate.

On April 15, 2013, the DSC-NY attended a hearing at New York’s City Hall on School Safety and Climate. In an effort to counter the city’s law-enforcement approach to school discipline issues and share the positive impact that transformative justice programs - peer mediation programs, restorative justice practices and trainings in conflict resolution – can have within communities of low income people of color, members of the DSC-NY who attended the hearing highlighted these gains and spoke to the personal, institutional and structural problems that result from a heavy police presence in our schools.

Alisha Izquierdo, a 17 year old peer mediator and member of Sistas and Brothas United, said, “I believe there should be, and there must be, positive approaches to discipline that keep students in the classroom.  In my campus, the Morris Campus in the Bronx, students, teachers, and all four schools' administration have all agreed that our campus needs to be restorative, and we have seen what these positive approaches have done:  build campus unity and support for students.”

Allies and youth were able to express their concerns before NY City council members. They testified about the ineffectiveness of policing students; and the need for counseling and funding to be allocated for the introduction and implementation of proven positive discipline alternatives that create a positive school environment. Many of the youth speakers spoke about the process of stigmatization they felt from school officials after going through the criminal justice system and having a criminal record.

City Council members suggested adults should teach students better behavior, instead of simply issuing summons and punishment. The New York Police Department staff who served as Student Safety council testified to the commitment towards better measures for safety, by insinuating that police presence has lowered the crime rates in New York City public schools. They also agreed that training security guards is fundamental, and will be providing more funding for the training of officers.

Additionally, the negative impacts of long-term suspensions were addressed. When youth are suspended for a number of days, they are going to fall behind in their education.

Also, the definition for “disorderly conduct” in schools is different from the legal definition. Students are being criminalized for simply being verbally abrasive. In order to eliminate this institutional oppression, restorative justice must be exercised.

After the hearing, youth from the Ya Ya Network performed outside of City Hall. Influenced by the methods of the theatre of the oppressed, the students represented in an interactive performance style, the harsh reality of how students are pushed from school and into prison. In harmony they chanted: “I like to learn and I cannot lie! Bloomberg is jailing our minds! When I’m late to class, I’m runnin’ real fast. My teachers say ‘You’re late!’ I get suspended!” The performance also showed how restorative justice can prevent altercations between staff and students.

While the play was taking place, other youth members handed out flyers with information about the school to prison pipeline and Dignity in Schools Campaign- NY’s mission to create alternatives for youth who are experiencing oppressive school environments.  

This action definitely grabbed many pedestrian’s attention, alerting them of the problems in our public school system and the dangers of criminalizing our youth.

Youth members from Sistas and Brothas United, the Sikh Coalition and other DSC members also joined the action and passionately chanted for change.

Ultimately, our fight for justice will continue until the Department of Education hears our cries and mends the school system.

Media Coverage for DSC-NY at Hearing on School Safety and Climate:

Democracy Now, 04/16/2013 - Students, Officials Condemn School-to-Prison Pipeline in NYC

Gotham Schools, 04/16/2013 - Advocates Ask Candidates For School Discipline Climate Change

New York Times, 04/16/2013 - Democratic Candidates Criticize Disciplining of City’s Students

The Ya-Ya Network is a NY City-based anti-racist, anti-sexist organization and allies with the LGBTQ community. Ya-Ya is staffed by young activists ages 15-19. We work with other youth, adult allies, youth programs & activist organizations. All to build a stronger voice for young people in the movement for social & economic justice.