Graduation season is still in the air, a time for tears of joy and sighs of relief—for those who make it that far.
On May 18, Andrew Jones, the valedictorian at Amite High School in Tangipahoa Parish, Louisiana, was stripped of his gown and blocked from taking the stage. His offense? Failing to shave his goatee, a school requirement that local civil-rights activists point out isn’t always enforced. “You’re graduating for all the hard work,” Jones says, “and it just got taken away from me like that.”
For similar reasons, some students didn’t get near the graduation stage. Across the country, black and Latino students are more likely to live under strict dress codes and get targeted for violating them. Under the rule of the “school-to-prison pipeline,” infractions lead to suspensions and, in turn, pushout and criminalization.
This is the other side of graduation: a reminder of how so many students get funneled out. In 2014, students at Michigan State University held an alternative commencement ceremony in recognition of survivors of sexual violence, who often withdraw from school or get pressured to leave. (Meanwhile on the main stage, the university gave an honorary degree to conservative columnist George Will, who had written that being assaulted is a “coveted status that confers privileges.”)
In this post, six students write about the factors that make it difficult to stay in school—from punitive discipline to outright violence—and how they’re fighting back.
1. Ending the Silence, No Matter the School
In November, a student at Morehouse College published the “Graves Letter” on Twitter. The student, who was accused of rape, wrote the letter as a “contract” making clear his belief that he could do whatever he wants to women who come into his room.
The next day, 300 people from across the Atlanta University Center—Spelman, Morehouse, and Clark—gathered outside Graves Hall to express our grievances with the letter and sexual violence in general. A week later, 15 of us fanned out around Martin Luther King Chapel and recruited others to stand with us to make clear that we will not be silent in the face of sexual violence. We were met with resistance and blank stares from most passersby.
For its part, Morehouse has formed a task force to address sexual violence, and both Spelman and Morehouse College are currently under investigation for violations of Title IX. While sexual violence isn’t unique to the AUC, attending a historically black college or university comes with the belief that our schools care deeply about our education and well-being. This can create a more difficult environment for speaking out; on the other hand, I love my HBCU enough to hold it accountable for protecting rapists and breaking trust.
On May 2 at 6:00 pm, the @RapedAtSpelman account was created on Twitter. The account told the story of an anonymous freshman who was sexually assaulted, ignored by the administration, and forced to leave Spelman. At 8:00 pm, students from AUCShutItDown emailed the AUC presidents demanding a response and developed a direct action plan. The next day, 400 students, alums, and Atlanta residents gathered for a survivor-led speakout, sharing their experiences of sexual violence with tears and cheers.
I do this work because I have no choice. Before October, I just wanted to be a hip-hop journalist with a college degree. Since then—from sexual violence to the #Hillary4Who protest, when we interrupted Hillary Clinton over her criminal justice record—I’ve realized that it’s a vital part of my life. Those who come to the AUC deserve to live in a safe environment.
2. Kicking out ICE
Axel Herrera Ramos
In 2014, a wave of unaccompanied minors crossed the border into the United States, fleeing violence, poverty, and corruption in Central American countries. Now, they’re priority targets for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which has begun rounding up those who have turned 18 and had a deportation order. Of the detainees, most were given orders in absentia and never received adequate legal counsel. North Carolina and Georgia have been hit disproportionately hard, with more than a third of all youth arrested coming from our states.
On January 28, the raids hit home at my school, Riverside, in Durham, North Carolina. The immigrant community had already heard rumors when Wildin Guillen Acosta, a senior on track to graduate in June, was apprehended by ICE officials dressed in civilian clothing. He was returning to his apartment after warming up his car to drive to school when he was approached, identified, handcuffed, and taken.
The response: a tremendous rallying of teachers, students, and community organizations. It began with the organization of social-media campaigns, #FreeWildin and #EducationNotDeportation, and, when he was set to be put on a plane to Honduras, quickly turned into hundreds of calls and a demonstration in front of Congressman G.K. Butterfield’s office. With Butterfield’s help, we pushed the director of ICE, Sarah Saldaña, to halt Wildin’s deportation.
Still, Wildin is being detained indefinitely until the courts decide his appeal for asylum, and ICE has denied requests for the release of fellow teens from the “NC6.” To ramp up the pressure, a delegation from Durham and Charlotte have taken the issue to DC. We’ve brought together a congressional briefing and met with Secretary of Education John King to share the effects of the raids on education. Immigrant families have stopped sending their children to school for fear of ICE, and the detainees—our classmates—remain incarcerated.
3. What’s the Point of School “Safety”?
Naseem Gibson and Luke Risher
In 2012, the Philadelphia Student Union and our allies fought for and won a 50 percent reduction in the number of suspendable infractions in the student code of conduct—a victory for student “success,” as our ability to graduate is tied to our disciplinary record. We also got the district to introduce restorative practices as an alternative to punitive forms of discipline. Ten schools have piloted peer-to-peer counseling or hired conflict-resolution specialists.
Since then, the superintendent, William Hite, re-raised the number of offenses and has made little investment in restorative practices. On top of this, school discipline isn’t enforced the same at every school. At “good schools,” there is very little police presence, students feel welcome and respected, and education is the top priority. When there are fights in the hallways, damage to school property, or fires in the bathroom, there’s a process for assessing what went wrong and how to resolve it for the betterment of the community. At “bad schools,” students are profiled and criminalized, and the district invests in more policing. School police blur the line between safety and justice. If you say the wrong words to an officer or it looks like you’re up to no good, you can be suspended.
This spring, students at Benjamin Franklin High were reminded that you can be outright assaulted if an officer feels it’s necessary. What should have been a minor infraction—a student used a bathroom without a hall pass—erupted into a violent display of police force resulting in a concussion. The incident, which was partially caught on video, has prompted a new campaign to stop police abuse in schools. We are calling on the district to stop investing in policing and listen to students about better ways to invest in our safety.
When our schools treat us more like criminals than students, it makes it stressful and difficult to learn. Incidents like the one at Franklin push some students to avoid going to school altogether out of fear of the police. We demand to be treated with dignity.
4. Who Gets to Make the Rules?
Madison, Wisconsin is often rated one of the best places to live and go to college—a “liberal” and “progressive” town, as Mayor Paul Soglin and other say, that welcomes “everyone.” With significant cases of state-sanctioned, anti-black violence, from the police murder of Tony Robinson to disregard for the murder of Aprina Paul, and the 75 percent poverty rate for black children, the question is, for whom?
On April 14, University of Wisconsin police officers violated stated policy by entering an Afro-American Studies class to arrest black student King Shabazz. Shabazz was arrested for spray-painting anti-oppressive declarations on buildings across campus, including, “White supremacy iz a disease,” “Amerikkka, land of the free, home of the slavez,” and “Racizm in the air, don’t breathe.” UW officials calculated the total cost of the “damage” at $4,000 and mandated that King pay the removal costs. During this process, King was put in the city jail, and his message was ultimately ignored.
Graffiti is not uncommon at UW; we believe that Shabazz’s arrest stemmed from his messaging and not the act itself. Moreover, regardless how one might think about “breaking the law,” it is unjust to expect oppressed people to follow “order” when order is almost always rooted in their oppression.
On April 21, students, organizing alongside Madison group Freedom Inc., occupied a popular campus library, blocked traffic, and marched to the hall where Shabazz was arrested. Together, we chalked anti-oppressive messages on nearby walkways and the building itself. We demanded the complete dismissal of King’s case, protection for his status as a graduating senior, the return of all confiscated items, the resignation of all involved university personnel, and community control over UWPD.
In a partial victory, King was allowed to graduate, and the city of Madison referred Shabazz to a “restorative justice” process instead of charging him criminally. We recognize both as small wins, however; power has to be shifted to all people of color living and surviving oppression in Madison through community control. Chancellor Rebecca Blank has stated that community control is “unreasonable.” Yet, it already exists for white students, especially when predominantly white fraternities and sororities do not have to answer to the university for their cultures of racial hatred—instead, dealing with issues “in-house” before any institutional action is taken. We will keep pressuring the university to address root issues like this one, while working to sustain momentum over the summer.
5. Opting Out of “Failure”
On April 15, the “No PARCC, More Jobs” campaign took over Baltimore, as more than 100 students from high schools across the city—City, Dunbar, Poly, BDS, Edmondson, Mervo—marched to district headquarters.
Our demand: Stop funding standardized testing, and instead invest in youth employment. PARCC, a test aligned to the Common Core that’s required for graduation, labels too many black students as failures. Meanwhile, a lot of youth out here are struggling just to eat and survive. The system is starving us and labeling us as thugs—the reason why we are, in the words of Munchie, “wilding out.”
Along with students across the country, the Baltimore Algebra Project is using the National Student Bill of Rights as a set of guidelines that we share with our peers to support our organizing. The NSBR is a list of 15 rights covering issues ranging from free public transportation to secure school facilities. The PARCC test, in particular, violates our right to culturally relevant coursework and is set up for us to fail.
Our goal is to get 1,600 students to opt out of the test, and we are inviting students to work with us. If enough of us opt out, the district will have no other choice but to modify or cancel the test.
6. Following the Money
On May 1, 200 students from the Bay Area, representing Students for Quality Education and a range of allies, marched on the San Francisco State University administration building. This day of action, with mobilizations throughout the California State University system, launched the next stage of our fight against tuition hikes proposed by the Board of Trustees. The hikes, which will be voted on in July, would start at 2 percent this year and continue year by year after that.
How do they expect us to graduate if we don’t have the support to complete our courses? I work on top of being a full-time student and organizer, and I have friends working two to three jobs a semester because of the cost of living in San Francisco. This can lead students to have mental breakdowns, drop out of school, or take longer to get their bachelor’s degree, accumulating overwhelming student loans.
Chancellor Timothy White’s response is that funding has to be found “elsewhere,” from tuition to private money. We demand that our administration recognize the distress of CSU students and uphold the mission of the 1960 California Master Plan, which is committed to holding down student costs.
At SFSU, our state of emergency includes the dishonoring of our College of Ethnic Studies, which seeks to provide a safe academic space for all students of color to learn about their cultures and history. In February, SFSU proposed a 40 percent funding cut on the grounds of overspending, leading to a 10-day hunger strike.
In light of everything that our campus has been going through this semester—from defending ethnic studies to mobilizing for a faculty strike—our march was a day when everyone could come together to amplify our voice. We’re angry, and we want everyone to know it.