Caps and Gowns, Not Jail Cell Bound: Groups Challenge Pushout in L.A.

15 Oct in
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Donning bright blue academic regalia and white sunglasses on her head, Community Rights Campaign youth member Tekoah Flory looked ready to walk across the stage to receive her high school diploma.

Yet, this wasn’t a graduation ceremony. The students next to her weren’t all clad in the same colored gowns.

Some, dressed in striped prison garb, testified with Flory on behalf of the students who may not graduate from high school or face diminished futures because of forces that pushed them out of school. The costumes fit perfectly with the theme of the day: “Caps and Gowns NOT Jail Cell Bound.”

"I graduated from a high school that began with a class of a little over 400 hundred but only 200 successfully completed their high school education," Flory told the board during her testimony. "As one of the few Black schools in LA [Westchester High School], not only do we have less resources and academic support, but experience higher rates of suspensions and expulsions...and we are left feeling the greatest impacts of zero tolerance policies and police misconduct."

Flory and others joined the Dignity in Schools Campaign’s Los Angeles Chapter (DSC-LA) for a press conference, demonstration and testimonies in front of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s (LAUSD) Board of Education Building on Tuesday, Oct. 12. Participating organizations included The Community Rights Campaign, the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC), the Community Asset Development Re-defining Education (CADRE), Public Counsel Law Center, and Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc.

“We hoped that people walked away with a stronger sense/understanding of the “pre-prison” conditions in our LA schools that are contributing to the mass push out and criminalization of Black and Latino students," said Community Rights Campaign Organizer Kendra Williby.  "Our event and work was not only aimed at highlighting the problem/s, but giving people, and elected officials, a clearer sense and direction of how to reverse the impacts of the school-to-prison pipeline."

The day opened with a press conference announcing the re-release of “Redefining Dignity in Our Schools: A Shadow Report on School-Wide Positive Behavior Support (SWPBS) Implementation in South Los Angeles, 2001-2010,"  by CADRE, the Public Counsel Law Center, and Mental Health Advocacy Services, Inc.

Despite LAUSD’s rhetoric around utilizing SWPBS , it has failed to totally implement and support the policy in all local districts. As a result, schools are continuing to rely on harsh discipline practices that have led to “unacceptably high suspension rates and disproportionate numbers of students of color” pushed out of school.

The report’s press release notes that “nationwide schools fully implementing SWPBS have seen up to a 60 percent reduction in disciplinary problems and out-of-school suspensions.” Other benefits include “reduced dropout rates, improved academic achievement, higher teacher retention, and a more positive school culture.”  

The announcement of the report was only part of DSC-LA’s demonstration. The group created its own “Pushout Resistance Art Exhibition” right in front of the LAUSD Board building, featuring a display 47,111—the number of truancy tickets handed to students last school year. Youth who receive these tickets, which can carry large fines, are often unable to pay them.

Drivers passing by honked their horns, asked what was happening, and looked over the display while waiting at the light.

“It was a great visual without having to say anything,” CADRE Leader Rob McGowan said.

Although general reactions to the demonstration were positive, McGowan noted the sarcastic remarks of one assemblyman who had once served on the school board. What would a demonstration be without some negative feedback?

The event culminated with youth, parent, attorney, and other advocate testimony in front of the school board later that afternoon. Some students, who had been stopped by truancy officers on Monday despite it being a holiday, spoke out against the harassment and the need for LAUSD to fully implement SWPBS in school.  The testimonies all included the same unifying message: all L.A. students deserve to be treated with dignity and fairness in schools. 

“Everyone did their part,” McGowan said. “It was great to be in a position to work together and doing it in such a way that the decision makers can see the connections between the big and smaller issues—that they’re interrelated.”

Watch a recap of DSC-LA’s actions!