Counselors, Not Cops: Creating Safe and Supportive Environments in America’s Schools

Khalilah Harris reports on a new book, Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out, examining the sources of and solutions for dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline told through the voices of advocates

Counselors, Not Cops: Creating Safe and Supportive Environments in America’s Schools

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Story Transcript

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: A new book, Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out, edited by Mark Warren and David Goodman, chronicles the firsthand stories of advocates who have been working to dismantle what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline.

MARK R. WARREN: For a long time these were mostly local efforts that people didn’t know that much about. And over the last 10 years we have really seen the emergence of all of these efforts across the country coming together, forming a new kind of educational justice movement. And I believed that these stories of this movement needed to be told, and that people needed to understand that we have solutions out there to the deep-seated problems of racism in our schools. And the solutions are being created by parents, and young people, and their allies, and educators in other places. And I felt it was important to try to bring those voices together.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: The U.S. Department of Education under current Secretary Betsey DeVos’ leadership has shown no signs of protecting or advancing policies targeted at protecting the civil rights of students. Advocates have been expressing concerns about gains made to create safe and supportive school environments under the Obama administration.

JONATHAN STITH: We saw very quickly that both administrations stripped away many of the guidelines in what we understood in the field of protections around specific student rights; right away around the transgender bathrooms. And then right at the height of the immigration … What was that, when they had the the ban, right? DeVos coming out and saying that it’s OK for schools to allow ICE in, right? She actually encouraged it. So it’s just kind of stripping away- and now what we’re waiting for is the stripping away of the federal guidelines on school discipline, which was really helped, really shaped by the Alliance and also Dignity in Schools.

MARK R. WARREN: Things are certainly worse with the kind of leadership that we have today because it is so focused on privatizing education. Not just through charters, but through trying to fund private schools or religious schools. So it’s really serving that kind of corporate agenda for charterization. And it’s also increasing a pressure to return to zero tolerance school discipline policies, which are suspending and pushing out kids of color at enormous rates.

So the previous administration, one of the main things that had happened I think through the efforts of grassroots organizers and parents and young people was to issue new guidance against the school-to-prison pipeline, against harsh discipline that really impacts students of color. But on the other hand, things weren’t great under the Obama administration, either. I mean, these are deep-seated problems of racial inequities, policing in our schools, the criminalization of young people, the lack of funding for schools in low-income communities so that our schools are underfunded. Our teachers are underfunded. Poverty in communities. It’s a whole gamut of issues that really lead to the school-to-prison pipeline and the failing of our young people, and these were going on under the Obama administration too.

So certainly we have a new urgency to find ways to come together to resist the latest trends and the assertion of a kind of white nationalist and more explicitly racist administration. But on the other hand, these are not new problems that we’re facing, either.

ZAKIYA SANKARA-JABAR: As we now know, the Trump administration, the Education Department, actually wants to use ESSA federal dollars to buy guns for teachers. That’s something that is very scary for me, as a mom of children who attend public school. A lot of young people are really terrified. And so folks are organizing to basically lift up the fact that again, just like with disproportionate suspensions and expulsions, there’s also disproportionate arrests, disproportionate interaction with SROs, with students of color, black students in particular.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: During the month of October, the Dignity in Schools campaign held its ninth annual week of action, working to advance policy and grassroots level work to increase student support in schools.

ZAKIYA SANKARA-JABAR: I am now the national field organizer for the Dignity in Schools campaign, which is the national coalition made up of parents, young people, teachers, legal advocacy organizations. We have 128 members across the country; 28 states, including D.C., Maryland as well. One of the biggest campaigns that Dignity in Schools has right now is our Counselors Not Cops campaign. AEJ, a bunch of other- Advancement Project- a bunch of other national organizations, we’re really galvanizing and supporting our members across the country to respond to the increase and uptick of SROs being disbursed into our schools this year. We’re really lifting up that narrative around removing the regular presence of police in schools to prevent young people, disproportionately black students, being referred out to Juvenile Justice and other criminal justice agencies. But also to prevent them from being harmed.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Many of the stories from this compilation are from young people thrust into advocacy based on their own experiences with unfair discipline, and parents who stepped into the fight in order to create better opportunities for their children.

ZAKIYA SANKARA-JABAR: I got started out of my own experience as a mom. My son was 3 years old at the time. He was being identified in a preschool in Ohio. And I just questioned the teachers, questioned the administrators about the things that they were complaining about.

I want black parents, black women in particular, to become inspired and to know they’re not alone. That’s extremely important. Because for me when I, when I started having that experience, I felt very alone and I felt attacked, right. Like, I even questioned my parenting. I questioned what, am I doing something wrong? Is there something wrong with my child? And so I had internalized, sort of, what was being projected onto us.

I think that story doesn’t get a lot of national play. We hear a lot of victim blaming of black parents, black women in particular, about how you’re not raising this child to do this or to do that instead of seeing all of the connections through the environment that they’re living in, and the poverty that they’re really living in, that we’re living in, right. That’s important. That story is important for folks to hear nationally. And I want to elevate the stories of black women, specifically poor and working class black women, who are facing these issues every day.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: In fall 2018, in addition to Warren and Goodman’s book, two new reports- including the We Came to Learn Report and Action Kit- were released, offering specific steps for communities seeking to create safe schools and limit the presence of law enforcement in their school buildings.

JONATHAN STITH: We are releasing a report on the 13th called We Came to Learn that documents the history of policing, as well as offers communities tools to prepare for school police brutality and how to respond, as well as laying out kind of strategies and ways that communities can help break and end the relationship between police departments and schools.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: Looking forward, students, parents educators, advocates, and researchers are taking lessons learned from their work and found throughout Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out, and strengthening their movement for positive school environments.

MARK R. WARREN: There are also concrete policies and strategies that have come out of this community-based movement. One of them is sustainable community schools. And these are schools that have wraparound services that attempt to address the holistic needs of young people in terms of social and emotional development, in terms of mental and physical health facilities, that have strong forms of parent and community engagement, that have culturally relevant curriculum. It’s really trying to build schools, in a sense, from the bottom up. And we have those models that community-based organizations have pushed and they are developing in places like New York City, for example, or Ohio, and across the country.

And another, I think, key policy initiative has been, you know, ending zero tolerance school discipline policies which suspend students for very minor behavioral infractions, and instead take the positive restorative justice approaches. And that’s another movement that is also spreading positivity across the country. Where we’re at, where young people and parents are demanding that schools create a different way of, a different culture in the schools. It’s not just about them having a new program. It’s about thinking again about what is the relationship between educators and students and their families? How do we create a restorative culture based on strong relationships, where if there are problems, or fights, or misbehavior that happens at a school, that there’s an effort to get at the root causes, to build new relationships, and to move forward in a restorative way rather than to punish and kick out?

JONATHAN STITH: A lot of our work has transformed since the assault in Spring Valley, right. And so for us where we are moving, and we believe the school-to-prison pipeline movement is moving towards, is really challenging the presence of police in schools. And it’s grounded in experience that young people have been documenting with all the assault [acts], as well as the kind of last batch of data that came out of the federal Department of Education that points out that 1.6 million students, probably black and brown students, attend a school with a cop and no counselor; that black and brown schools, predominantly black and brown schools, are more likely to have school police officers than white schools. And the arrest data reflects almost very similar to the suspension data.

So for us we think that kind of in our, kind of, personal experience and then what we’re seeing, that this feels like the next issue.

DR. KHALILAH M. HARRIS: This is Khalilah Harris for The Real News, where we will continue to bring you stories about providing all students with equitable access to quality schools. Stay tuned.