Student activist Tre Murphy: Eric Holder and Arne Duncan’s call for less use of zero-tolerance policies is a good start but much work remains to reign in the use of law enforcement in public schools
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: This is The Real News, and I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
On Wednesday, the federal government unveiled new guidelines aimed at reining in harsh disciplinary measures widely used in the country’s public schools. Speaking in Baltimore, Education Secretary Arnie Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged suspensions and arrests are overused and disproportionately target minority students.
ARNE DUNCAN, U.S. SECRETARY OF EDUCATION: Nationwide, as many as 95 percent of out-of-school suspensions are for nonviolent misbehavior. But I must ask: is putting children out of school the best solution, the best remedy for those problems?
ERIC HOLDER, U.S. ATTORNEY GENERAL: We’re not afraid to say that, you know, if you’re a kid with a disability, if you are a kid of color, under these zero-tolerance approaches you are unfairly likely to be suspended. And that is a reality we have to confront.
NOOR: This is the first time the federal government has released guidelines on school discipline, and comes as increasing evidence is emerging that such zero-tolerance policies are ineffective.
Now joining us to discuss this here in Baltimore is Tre Murphy. He’s an 18-year-old high school senior at Baltimore’s Mergenthaler Vocational High, organizer with the Baltimore Algebra Project, which is part of the Dignity in Schools campaign. For full disclosure: the Algebra Project rents space here at the Real News headquarters.
Thanks so much for joining us, Tre.
TRE MURPHY, ORGANIZER, BALTIMORE ALGEBRA PRJECT: Thank you for having me.
NOOR: So, Tre, you’re a high school student. You just came to our studio from high school. And I taught in many public schools in New York City for the last five years, and most people don’t understand just how many police are in public schools today and what kind of impact having police, having metal detectors you have to walk through every day going to school, what kind of impact that has on someone’s education. Can you talk about your own experiences and what kind of impact you think that has on yourself and your fellow students?
MURPHY: Yeah. Sure.
So that is actually correct. One of the biggest things for me is that when I walk inside of my school, nine times out of ten, most of the time, the first person who I see or the first staff person that’s not a student who I see is a resource officer, a school resource officer. And so that has a dramatic impact on me, because when I walked into my high school in ninth grade year, I never knew that schools was even allowed to have police officers there. And then–so for me to walk inside of a high school from just coming straight from middle school or straight out of middle school, it was a new experience for me.
You know, it really awakened my eyes to the fact–it made me raise a series of questions, one of which was: is this school safe? Because the first thing that I do when I walk into a new high school is see a police officer. And so that made me aware of, like, do I–should I constantly be alert at all times here. They say that school is–number-one priority is safety, but having cops inside of schools raised the question of are the schools even safe to begin with in the first place. [incompr.] I can recall even way back to my ninth grade year when there was a student who was forcefully put up against a wall by a school resource officer for simply walking down–.
NOOR: Which is, like, a police officer. It’s, like, a cop that works inside a public school.
MURPHY: Yup. So they have the same training. They get the same–they have to go through the same process as a regular police officer. They are just made a Baltimore City school police officer, which we call resource officers.
And he actually forcefully put one of my fellow students up against the wall. And it made me think, like, is that the way that we should treat our students?
NOOR: You’re part of the Algebra Project and part of the Dignity in Schools campaign. That’s really–both nationwide efforts at really kind of raising this as an issue that needs to be dealt with. And the federal government on Wednesday, for the first time they really acknowledged this is a problem. They issued these guidelines.
Talk about the significance of the work that’s been done by students, by community members raising these issues and the fact that the federal government acknowledges, as you heard, you know, Arne Duncan and Eric Holder say in the beginning of this interview, that these are serious problems and they disproportionately target minority students and students with disabilities.
MURPHY: Yes. No. That is very valid. First and foremost, it’s significant of them just acknowledging that sends the country in a whole different direction. So for community activists such as myself and such as the members of the Dignity in Schools campaign and all of the rest of the national networks–the Alliance for Educational Justice, Advancement Project, all of the national networks who have worked so diligently to even try to push the Department of Education and the Department of Justice to actually acknowledge that there is a problem or there is issues facing our school district that’s predominantly African-American or Latino-based, and that this is a race-based issue, I mean, the significance of that is just–it’s not as big as I would like it to be, but just getting them to acknowledge that there is a school-to-prison pipeline, that it does [incompr.] affect minority youth of color and youth with disabilities, that sends us to a whole ‘nother level.
NOOR: So talk about how activists can use these guidelines to, as you said, make concrete changes in their schools, in their communities. And talk about what alternatives exist as far as discipline and–Arne Duncan and, you know, Attorney General Holder talked about making schools a safe place that’s conducive for learning. What kind of community-based approaches exist out there that aren’t being used but can be used?
MURPHY: Yes. No. So there are a great number of things that can take place. And so some of the methods that we have been able to use across the country is what we call the Restorative Justice Toolkit. And so what it is: it’s basically–it’s just methods of mediating issues, different issues that young people face.
So we do something that’s called peer mediation. We know that peers [incompr.] best from other peers who are in the same situation that they’re faced with, so other peers being able to mediate their peers, because they can understand the context of the situation from which they are going through, something that a school resource officer, a police officer, or a school official, administrators, may not have any knowledge of. And so that’s just one of the methods.
We also know that based off statistics, a person who doesn’t go to jail at all is not likely to go to jail more than a person who goes to jail once, who is more likely to go back to jail again.
And so how do we keep them off of that jail track? Because having more police inside of schools, giving them the ability to lock up students, is setting a precedent that you are a criminal and you should be treated such as a criminal.
NOOR: Exactly. It raises the point: are we preparing kids to go to jail, or preparing them for a future and to get an education to have a future?
And the method that I use all the time is that my school and schools across the country are becoming more jail-like as the days and the years go by. It’s become a normal thing.
And so how do we detoxify that setting? Because it’s not normal for our schools to look like prisons. That’s just not normal at all. It’s not normal for our students to have the mind mentality that because I walked down the wrong side of the hallway, I should be tried as a criminal, I should go to jail. That at all is not normal.
And something that the Baltimore Algebra Project has specifically used is what we call the National Student Bill of Rights. What we say is that the reason why that there are so many issues facing our young people, and the alternative to not having school police officers or these zero-tolerance policies at all, is to have a National Student Bill of Rights that changes the whole culture of the school. And so if the culture of the school for so many years have been that if you do something wrong, you get locked up by or the school police officers has to deal with you in a way from which it just should not be tolerated, then we change the whole culture to students actually feeling ownership over their education, because we know that the people who are most directly affected by stuff, that should be the people that’s on the forefront of it. And so why young people’s input aren’t in a foundation of how to make their education better is just outrageous to me.
And so the National Student Bill of Rights just simply says that you have an education, that you can improve your own education, that you should have some ownership over your education, because you’re more inclined to protect your education if you feel ownership over it.
NOOR: Alright. Tre Murphy, thank you so much for joining us.
MURPHY: Thank you for having me.
NOOR: You can follow us @therealnews on Twitter, Tweet me questions and comments @jaisalnoor.
Thank you so much for joining us.