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Students rally in protest of policies that criminalize youth of color

11th March 2013   ·   0 Comments

On Monday, March 4, youth of color from across the country held a rally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol followed by a march to the White House to call on Congress and the Obama administration to reject school-safety policies that criminalize students of color, immigrant youth, LGBTQ students and students with disabilities, and push them out of school.

Youth and parent leaders from states including California, Geor­gia, Mississippi, New York, and Washington, DC gathered to give testimony about the impact of increased police presence, armed guards, metal detectors and zero-tolerance discipline policies in their schools and communities and to demand that the voices of youth of color be included in the conversation on gun violence prevention and school safety. Speakers urged legislators and the White House to focus on investing in proven positive approaches to discipline like Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS), social and emotional learning, Restorative Justice, and the hiring and training of counselors, social workers, and community intervention workers.

The rally began at 4 p.m. with an opening speech by Jasmine Jaure­gui, a youth organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition from Los Angeles. “We all traveled many miles to share the solutions that communities and students of color are proposing because we strongly believe that the solutions coming from Congress are not what will keep us safe. We have seen how attempts to increase school safety with armed guards, police and prison-like conditions have failed. We want to be certain that no student gets left behind in the legal system. We demand college prep, not prison prep.”

Rukia Lumumba, a parent of a five-year-old son and youth coordinator with the Center for Community Alternatives in New York, spoke about the harmful impact that the presence of school police has on her son every day.

Aiesha Vegas, a student and organizer with Youth on the Move from the Bronx, NY spoke about the effects on students’ ability to attend and succeed in schools whose environment resembles a prison.

Manny Yusuf, a 15 year-old youth leader from DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving) in New York spoke about how a police presence in schools intimidates immigrant youth. “Putting more police or school resource officers in schools does not prevent violence and shootings. Instead, I’ve seen firsthand how it increases the criminalization of youth of color and how immigrant youth, especially undocumented youth, will go to school while living in fear of being deported,” she said.

Tyrone Sinclair, a youth organizer with the Youth Justice Coalition from Los Angeles, CA, told the crowd of students, parents, advocates and members of the press gathered outside the U.S. Capitol about his experience being expelled from a school that resembled a prison, and the conditions he faced on the streets of Los Angeles which inevitably led him to spend three weeks in the L.A. county jail. “We were students, yet we interacted daily with armed guards who wore badges, and instead of verbal warnings we got criminal citations. It was as if our paths were already being set on the school-to-jail track.”

Orlando Armstead of Critical Exposure, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit organization that teaches youth to use the power of photography to become effective advocates for school reform and social change, spoke about the conditions in DC-area schools and their work to move local schools away from the practices that lead to the criminalization of youth of color.

Christopher Covington, a youth coordinator for the California Conference for Equality and Justice (CCEJ), spoke about the need for community participation in school discipline policy decisions.”We need Community Intervention Workers and Peace Builders in our schools who are members of the communities they work with because they have their ear to the ground and can resolve conflicts in the community without the use of guns or police. We need Restorative Justice Practices implemented in our schools. We know that schools where Restorative Justice Practices are implemented have improved school climates, dramatically decreased suspensions, and prevented violence and other disciplinary incidents. We know that this is what works.”

Christina Cathey, youth coordinator with Action Communication and Education Reform (ACER) in Duck Hill, MS, spoke about the history of harsh discipline practices in Mississippi, including corporal punishment, and how this impacts students’ academic achievement and emotional health.

The closing speaker was LaTonya Hawkings, a parent leader with the Gwinnett Parent Coalition to Dismantle the School to Prison Pipeline (Gwinnett STOPP), gave an emotional testimonial about the impact of police oppression on her son’s education.

Those gathered followed the end of the testimonials with chants of “No Peace With a Piece” and “Ain’t No Power like the Power of the Youth!” and then began a march on Constitution Avenue towards the White House.

Once at the White House, participants gathered at Lafayette Park and formed a circle where photos of young people who have lost their lives to gun violence were distributed and a moment of silence was held to honor their lives and their struggles. The participants then marched silently to the front of the White House and left the photos and candles in memory of the victims of gun violence across the country.

The rally and march are part of a series of events and actions led by a national coalition of youth of color, including members of the Youth Justice Coalition from California, Urban Youth Collaborative and DRUM (Desis Rising Up and Moving) from New York, and the Nollie Jenkins Family Center from Mississippi. The organizations include members of the national Dignity in Schools Campaign and the Alliance for Educational Justice.

In February, the national coalition released its “Statement by Youth of Color on School Safety and Gun Violence in America” which at the time of this event has been drafted by 106 youth of color and endorsed by 52 organizations and 97 community leaders. The coalition also launched the “You Can’t Build Peace With A Piece” social media campaign to mobilize students of color from around the country and raise awareness about the policies that transfer school discipline issues to the criminal justice system.

Members of the coalition were in Washington DC through March 5 with the Dignity in Schools Campaign and met with members of the U.S. House and Senate and the U.S. Department of Education to call for positive alternatives to police in schools.

In January, the Dignity in Schools Campaign, together with the Advancement Project, the Alliance for Educational Justice, and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) released a joint issue brief outlining the problems already experienced by stationing police and armed guards in schools, and offering alternative recommendations.

The Dignity in Schools Cam­paign is a coalition of youth, parents, educators, civil rights organizations, and social justice advocates working to ensure the human right of every child to a quality education and to be treated with dignity. The DSC challenges the systemic problem of “push out” and promotes local and national alternatives to a culture of zero-tolerance, punishment and removal in our nation’s schools.

This article originally published in the March 11, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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