As National Momentum Grows, Advocates’ Voices Ring Out On Capitol Hill

By Lori Bezahler, President, Edward W. Hazen Foundation

Twelve years ago I sat in a room with high school students in East Los Angeles and heard them describe the tracking in their schools. As one youth leader of Innercity Struggle explained to me, “There are four tracks in our school. College track, and we’re not on that, military track, low wage work track and penitentiary track.” Not long thereafter, I was meeting with parents in the Mississippi Delta, talking about the so-called “training schools” where their children were sent for minor behavior infractions, places in which the staff are low-paid, unskilled guards with no training in dealing with children and certainly no teaching credentials. In those facilities, their children were being left without adequate care, no instruction and had been documented by the U.S. Department of Justice to have been treated inhumanly, even being left alone in a cold, bare room, naked and hog-tied like an animal. It was in that meeting that I first remember hearing the phrase “school to prison pipeline.”

Last Wednesday afternoon I was at the United States Senate, listening to Edward Ward, an honor roll sophomore at DePaul University and youth leader with the Voices of Youth in Chicago Education and Dignity in Schools Campaign, testify at the first-ever Congressional hearing on “Ending the School to Prison Pipeline” before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary’s Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.

The hearing room was packed with 260 people, and another 150 were in an overflow room watching a live stream; countless more were watching from their home communities. They had come from across the country—New York City, Philadelphia, Mississippi, Chicago, Georgia, Buffalo, Alabama, Washington, Louisiana—to witness this moment. Not the victory they seek, but an important win on the way to having schools that understand that their job is to keep students in school and learning, not lost in a maze of suspensions, expulsions and court referrals. The hearing was a step towards schools with the tools, resources and training to create positive supports for children so that, regardless of the deprivation, loss, violence or trauma that they may experience outside of the classroom, students will know that they are safe, cared for and supported in learning.

Senator Richard Durbin, Chair of the Committee, called the hearing, and his opening remarks framed the issue well and in terms consistent with what I have learned from parents, students and communities: At its root, the zero-tolerance policies and punitive practices in place in schools that criminalize normal behavior. Students who are suspended are more likely to end up involved with the criminal justice system. And students of color are more likely to be suspended or referred to law enforcement than their White peers, particularly for low-level, subjective offenses, the kind of things that might have found me in the principal’s office when I was a student, but certainly not in a courtroom.

The witnesses at the hearing included Representatives Bobby Scott and Dan Davis, long-standing leaders in Congress with a commitment to issues of civil rights and justice. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Deborah Delisle and Acting Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Melodee Hanes expressed the administration’s commitment to addressing the problem and described the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, a joint initiative of the Departments of Education and Justice. We also heard from Judith Browne Dianis, Co-Director of the Advancement Project and an ardent advocate for educational and racial justice, and Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute.

But two witnesses spoke with remarkable clarity and passion, one as a student, the other as a juvenile court judge, both activists in the struggle for the rights and interests of children.

Edward Ward told of his experiences as an honors student at Orr Academy High School in Chicago, where despite his own success, he witnessed many of his friends being repeatedly suspended from school and ultimately giving up and not coming back, having internalized the message that they were not wanted. In his cousin’s case, with no one at home to guide him, the suspensions simply provided an opportunity to get deeper into trouble, dealing drugs for much-needed income and eventually ending up in jail and later shot. For a friend who was repeatedly in detention and missing classes for being late but never asked to explain, no one knew that she couldn’t leave her younger brother until her parents returned from work. For children facing challenges such as these, what should have been a welcoming and nurturing place was more like a prison than a school, equipped with metal detectors and an extensive on-site security and police force. The numbers reflect Edward’s perception—Orr’s graduation rate in 2008 was 27.7 percent and the annual dropout rate was three times the district average, while the percentage of student misconduct handled by the school which resulted in suspensions was 66.7 percent, and the district average was 39.3 percent.

Edward told the Committee, “Because I believed I needed to take part in improving my school, I got involved with Blocks Together and joined their effort to introduce and implement restorative justice practices in Chicago Public Schools as an alternative to suspensions and expulsions. Restorative justice is grounded in the idea that we become safer when we hold each other accountable in ways that build more tight-knit community, get to the root of problems, restore relationships between people and give people the skills and support they need to prevent future problems. Through our organized pressure we were able to get some disciplinary incidents in our school referred from the dean for discipline to the restorative justice-based peer jury. I served as a restorative justice facilitator at my school and helped train other students to be restorative justice facilitators as well.”

Although school officials came to appreciate the value of the methods that Blocks Together students were introducing, with 14 different administrators over four years, the students found they were revisiting the same questions and concerns over and over again, hindering their ability to move forward. In order to make certain that progress can continue in their school and throughout the district, Blocks Together works as a member of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education to push for positive changes such as the implementation of restorative justice practices throughout the school district and, as a member of the national Dignity in Schools Campaign, to challenge the systemic problem of overly punitive discipline and pushout in our nation’s schools.

Judge Steve Teske, Chief Judge at the Clayton County Juvenile Court in Georgia, was equally eloquent in describing his work to end the use of zero-tolerance policies as a method for pushing young people out of schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Shocked by the number of cases in his court that were referred by schools for low-level misdemeanors, Judge Teske learned that in 1996 there had been a total of 49 school referrals, but that the number had skyrocketed once police began to be stationed at schools. In 2004 there were 1,400 referrals, 92 percent for offenses such as disruptive behavior, fights, disorderly conduct and the like, and over 80 percent of the referrals were students of color. Equally disturbing was the fact that the increase in arrests correlated with a decrease in academic performance, the graduation rate reaching an all-time low of 58 percent in 2003.

Like Edward Ward, Judge Teske was compelled to act and undertook a slow and thoughtful process through the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative to create what he termed “a system of care” that engaged all of the systems intended to serve young people—education, juvenile justice, community-based child service providers, foster care and others—in developing protocols and strategies designed to reduce referrals by schools to the courts and to offer treatment services not available in the schools to families in need of support. The new system is working; by 2011 the number of referrals to the courts in Clayton County had decreased by 83 percent, the presence of serious weapons on campus was down by 73 percent, and the graduation rate increased by 24 percent by the end of 2010.

While Judge Teske’s facts were certainly compelling, the commitment and passion that he expressed in his testimony and in answering the panel’s questions reminded me that there are allies in many places, remarkable people who have chosen to be both leaders and collaborators in the struggle for educational justice. As Edward Ward said, “I would hope in the near future, we will have undone this mistake—that my children will never have to feel anything but welcome in their schools. But a problem my generation did not cause cannot be solved by my generation alone.”

Judith Browne Dianis of the Advancement Project made clear in her testimony the critical importance of having young people at the center of this work. As I have seen through my work at the Edward Hazen Foundation supporting youth organizing, students and parents are too often the sole voice consistently challenging practices that remove them from the classroom and criminalize normal, youthful behavior. I am quite certain that without their pressure, Wednesday’s hearing would never have taken place. As adults, we need to heed them and the moral authority of their lived experiences. Edward’s words should serve as a call to action for all of us. Whether parents or teachers, judges or administrators, legislators or funders, we all have a role in achieving his vision.

This post originally appeared on Opp2Learn, the blog of the National Opportunity to Learn Campaign, on December 17th, 2012 and is reprinted with permission.

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