They Say Push Out, We Say Push Back!
By Samira Dewider, Dignity in Schools Campaign-NY
On October 4th, over 100 students, parents, advocates, and teachers were joined by City Council member Daniel Dromm (D-Queens) at City Hall Park to speak out against punitive discipline policies and over policing in public schools. The message from members of the citywide coalition, Dignity in Schools Campaign-New York (DSC-NY), was that the excessive use of metal detectors, NYPD School Safety Officers, and zero tolerance discipline practices that often result in suspensions, all lead to students being “pushed out” of school. Schools that resemble prisons with more police officers than guidance counselors are not places of learning and success, but instead hostile environments. Students who are continually suspended fall behind in school and are more likely not to graduate and to become incarcerated. DSC-NY joined communities in 28 other cities as part of the Dignity in Schools Campaign National Week of Action on School Pushout to denounce current policies and suggest positive alternatives.
Excited and empowered, students shouted “They say push out, we say push back!” and “The students united will never be defeated!" to kick off the October 4th action. Students traveled from schools all over the five boroughs to denounce zero tolerance policies, share their school discipline experiences, and show their support for restorative justice programs and conflict resolution. Abeer Ahmed, a youth member of DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving), a high school senior in Queens Collegiate High School, said he “feels like a prisoner” when he is in school. Abeer asked the crowd of students “how are we supposed to learn with all these metal detectors, school safety officers, and cops in our schools?” Students cheered Abeer on as he described the daily routine in his school of walking through metal detectors, which serve to dehumanize him and make him feel like a prisoner. It was clear that all the students felt negatively impacted by the presence of the NYPD and metal detectors in their schools.
The Bushwick Campus Street Theatre group, Bushwick Stage Nerds, performed a visual representation of what Abeer and other students experience daily in NYC schools. Student actors passed through a mock metal detector and were frisked by a school safety officer. Some were repeatedly stopped and searched, setting off the detector because of a belt or calculator, not a weapon. Students booed when an actor set off the metal detector and was pulled aside to be searched and made late to class, voicing their opposition to the criminalization of students, especially youth of color.
Chima Agwu, a youth member of Sistas and Brothas United and a peer mediator at Belmont Preparatory High School explained how he helps resolve conflicts without the use of suspensions in his school and how this contributes to a more positive school climate in general. Chima described peer mediation, counseling, restorative practices, and conflict resolution as “positive alternative[s] to harsh disciplinary penalties, meaning that students are not being forced to miss school for so many days.” While zero tolerance policies result in suspensions that cause students to miss school and fall behind in their studies, positive disciplinary practices keep students in school and enable them to work together with other students and staff to find solutions to the conflict and repair the harm done. Students take responsibility for their actions as well as their school community when restorative practices are used. Chima concluded by asking students, teachers, parents, and advocates to join the march to One Police Plaza to present their demands to NYC Police Commissioner Ray Kelly to reduce over-policing and support positive alternatives.
The Dignity in School Campaign NY October 4th rally and march showed the commitment of young people to ending punitive discipline policies and the over policing of their schools. Students demanded peer mediation programs and restorative fairness committees, which they would be actively involved in creating and running, and showed their commitment to developing the solutions to change the policies that actively push students away from school. The rally and march coincided with events across the country from October 1st to October 8th, which demanded an end to the pushout crisis and the criminalization of students.
Watch video footage from the DSCNY Event:
Media Coverage of the DSC-NY Event:
“New York's Pushout Crisis: Why Students Don't Graduate” by Emily Shaw, Liz Sullivan and Refat Shoshi Chowdhury, Gotham Gazette, 09/27/11
“Global Movements, Urban Struggles” on WBAI Radio, 09/29/11
“Protestors Chant for an End to Excessive Suspensions of Students” by Kait Richmond, Pavement Pieces, 10/5/11