Where Are the Student Voices in the Gun Control Debate?

Where Are the Student Voices in the Gun Control Debate?

Where Are the Student Voices in the Gun Control Debate?

In the wake of Newtown, students are upping the fight against racial injustice in school discipline.


A SWAT team at Habans Elementary School, New Orleans. (Flickr/Bart Everson)

I grew up in Oxford, Connecticut, a town over from Newtown. Both are solidly white and (at minimum) middle class, with white, middle-class politics to boot. Democrats and Republicans shake hands after yelling at each other. Democrats vote for Republicans if they’re known to be respectable people around town. There are no police review boards; the police are who you call when you accidentally set off your house alarm. And, in one of America’s most racially balkanized states, there’s little talk of racial injustice. For residents of Connecticut’s white getaways, society is, by default, post-racial.

In the wake of the Newtown massacre, municipalities far away, and far different, from Newtown are ramping up their school police forces and security checks. They have an ally in President Obama, whose 23 gun control proposals include added funding for “school resource officers”—that is, police.

As a result, students of color across the country are bracing for the dependably discriminatory impact of heightened school security. Since the advent of zero-tolerance policies during the Reagan-era war on drugs, suspension rates have gone up disproportionately for blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. Black students are now three times as likely as white students to get suspended, despite scant evidence of greater suspension-worthy infraction. The policies undergirding this discrimination are twofold: first, codes of conduct with heavy penalties for nonviolent incidents like being late, talking back, violating dress codes, or, as Daniel Denvir writes at Vice, farting; second, more school police to enforce them—a 38 percent national increase from 1997 to 2007.

Treating students of color purely as victims, though, misses half the story. In a movement uniting large advocacy organizations like the Advancement Project with a vast array of student and community groups, the zero-tolerance years have also been an era of collective resistance.

Through organizing and action research, activists have worked to roll back discriminatory policies in schools across the country. In Denver, Padres y Jóvenes Unidos won a six-year fight in 2008 to limit police intervention in city schools and revise the discipline code—overturning post-Columbine policy that saw a 71 percent increase in district referrals to law enforcement from 2000 to 2004. Through the work of groups like Chicago’s Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and Los Angeles’s CADRE, big cities across the country have implemented restorative justice practices—often referred to as “positive behavior and intervention supports”—like peer juries and anti-punitive teacher training. And last month, some 400 activists descended on Capitol Hill for the first-ever Senate hearing on ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

Now, post-Newtown, these same groups are on the march against further youth criminalization.

The LAPD’s Perfect Attendance

On December 21, students and allies from LA’s Community Rights Campaign held a vigil for the Newtown victims—while also warning policy-makers of the risks of fear-driven reaction. After the shootings, the LAPD announced that it would be working with the school district to staff schools with more cops, adding to the largest school police force in the country. Meanwhile, California Senator Barbara Boxer floated a proposal to invite the National Guard into public schools and increase funding for COPS, the federal revenue stream for school police.

These policies fly in the face of positive gains for students of color in LA over the past decade. In 2007, the district passed a citywide policy requiring schools to adopt proactive mediation practices and decrease reliance on exclusionary punishment like class removal and suspension. More recently, policy-makers heeded a demand by community groups not to use the city’s “truancy ticketing” practice to fine students for being late to school.

Rosa Solache, a senior at Roosevelt High School, recalls getting fined as a freshman. “My parents couldn’t afford to pay,” she says. “It hurts people mentally.” As part of her school’s Take Action team, Solache is now organizing around post-Newtown policy. “We’re trying to inform students about what’s going on with Senator Boxer…At the end of the day, the police aren’t fixing the problems, because they never get to the root causes of problems. We should have more resources.”

An added burden for restorative justice organizers is the lived reality of heavy school policing. “Students all their lives having police on campus—they think it’s normal,” says Laura Aguilar, a sophomore at Manuel Arts High School. “They want more forms of authority governing our schools.”

The district’s post-Newtown police presence compounds shoddy implementation of anti-punitive policies on the books. Three years after the city mandated restorative justice practices, most schools in South LA hadn’t taken the steps to put them in place. Meanwhile, organizers say, the district hasn’t maintained any meaningful commitment to assessing police involvement in school discipline.

In Philly, a Crisis Within a Crisis

Philadelphia’s Campaign for Nonviolent Schools organizes students around issues of student voice, classroom engagement, school discipline, and adequate counseling supports. After a series of actions last summer, the campaign won a new, less punitive discipline matrix and protections in the school’s dress code for gender-nonconforming students.

Still, organizers claim, the district has been poor at tracking data on out-of-school suspensions, and funding has become an issue for district-backed restorative justice practices.

If the district follows through with a plan to close 37 schools this year—against heavy protest—youth criminalization could multiply. The potential consequences of the closings for teachers, nurses and counselors are still unfolding. What is clear, according to district spokesperson Fernando Gallard, is that school police are in it for the long haul.

“To the best of my knowledge, [the closings] will help us with having more school police officers in more schools,” he says. “The idea is definitely to put those officers in the remaining schools.”

In the week after the Newtown shootings, the district increased its school officer corps. Gallard couldn’t speak to whether those forces have been maintained, and if so, how long they’ll remain.

As the district’s plans move forward, the upside for students is a seat on the district’s School Safety and Engagement Committee. On January 17, students from the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools convened an open meeting with district officials and students from across the city to address school safety.

“Some of the interesting things I heard students say is how police officers don’t make schools safer—they don’t know how to engage with young people,” says Azeem Hill, an organizer with the Philadelphia Student Union who graduated from West Philadelphia High School in 2011. However, “I’m optimistic because the district people were so willing to be there and listen to young people. We wouldn’t be a successful campaign without allies.”

Where Are the Adults?

In her press release reacting to the Newtown shootings and calling for the National Guard, Boxer wrote, “My heart is broken. Little babies gone—babies—barely on this earth. Loved, nurtured, taught, trusting. Looking up to us. They trusted us and we failed them.”

Sandy Hook Elementary School covers kindergarten through fourth grade, so Boxer is right to suggest that its students are young and vulnerable. Those affected by post-Newtown policy, though, run the age spectrum and include many involved in grassroots organizing. As long as these voices are ignored, and students are treated as passive receptacles of school policy rather than autonomous political actors, school policy will continue to be discriminatory.

“Teachers have to learn not to look down upon us because of our color, and need to push the movement forward with us,” Aguilar says. “They tell us, ‘we love what you’re doing,’ instead of helping out.”

The nation’s two major teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have openly embraced Obama’s gun control proposals, including the item on funding for school police. Speaking on KPFA radio on January 19, AFT president Randi Weingarten acknowledged the issues with police presence in schools, but ultimately spoke in favor of it. “We actually have to have a real balance here, and I think the president got there by saying, if a community actually wants more of a police presence, then there will be some funding for that,” she said. This funding, she continued, is similar in kind to Obama’s voluntary supports for counselors and social workers.

But who speaks for the “community”? State receivers like Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission? Cop-friendly districts like LA’s? 

Anyone who isn’t a student—or constantly listening to students—is bound to have an incomplete perspective on school safety, especially for students of color. While it’s easy to shoot down platitudes from groups like the NRA, the Newtown massacre should push us to start listening to those who know students best—themselves.

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