Pushing Back on School Pushout and Ensuring Safe Schools for Students of Color

Posted on April 1, 2019

CE youth documenting End War on Youth, a national day of action on December 4, 2018, at the U.S. Department of Education to demand police-free schools.

Every few weeks, the Weissberg Foundation features a story from one of our Reframing <Washington> Empowerment Fund grantee partners to shine a light on their critical work. Learn more about these powerful organizations by visiting their websites.

Critical Exposure (CE) trains DC youth of color to harness the power of photography and their own voices to fight for education equity and social change. CE youth use photography and writing to depict their daily lives, raise awareness about critical issues that disproportionately impact youth of color, collaborate to design equitable solutions, and elevate their voices by meeting with city decisionmakers to hold those in power accountable for addressing the issues important to them.

It’s no secret that police in schools disrupt the learning environment for youth of color. Black and Latino students face criminalization and extreme discipline for minor or even perceived infractions, pushing young people of color out of school and into the criminal justice system, known more widely as School Pushout. And over the years, CE youth have described the ways in which their behavior is criminalized in the school building, often from the moment they arrive at the front doors.

According to Meshaun, who participated in CE’s Fellowship, “Walking through metal detectors is a serious situation. If the metal detector beeps when you walk through, stuff happens. It is the enemy of students and parents. When you don’t have anything on you, the security guard still checks you without using the wand (hand-held metal detector) sometimes. They sometimes wand you inappropriately and need more training.”

Youth come to school to learn, not to be harassed by police or feel unsafe.

In October 2018, CE partnered with the Dignity in Schools Campaign’s Week of Action Against School Push-Out. Eight CE youth participants attended a screening for the film, “For Ahkeem,” a coming-of-age story during the uprisings in Ferguson, Missouri. The film illuminates challenges facing many youth of color in America today: disruptive police presence, gun violence, and implications of poverty. Later that week, at a film screening for “The Hate U Give” in partnership with the Advancement Project, two CE Fellowship alum, Nadia and Portia, spoke on a panel on their experience working for greater police and security guard accountability. Approximately 75 middle and high school students attended the film screening and panel discussion, providing a great avenue for CE program alum to share their experience and analyze the ways media portray youth of color.

Yet, the situation has the potential to worsen.

In December 2018, the Federal Commission on School Safety, led by the Department of Education and Department of Justice, released recommendations to increasingly “harden” schools. Their recommendations call for increasing police presence, arming teachers, and increasing the number of metal detectors.

Anticipating this federal stance, CE youth and staff, along with youth across the country, have spoken out against these recommendations, knowing that these policies make schools unsafe for historically marginalized youth, including CE participants, and further cement the school-to-prison pipeline.

On December 4th, CE youth joined youth from 14 cities nationwide at End War on Youth, a national day of action at the U.S. Department of Education to demand police-free schools. Organized by Alliance for Educational Justice, the event gave youth space to speak their truth, share testimonials of their experiences of police in their schools, and demand police-free learning environments.

The next day, CE staff attended the press event and panelist discussion of Community for Just Schools Fund (CJSF) Do the Harder Work – Create Cultures of Connectedness in Schools. CJSF’s report uses the collective findings of youth, parents, and community organizers to advocate for a holistic approach to school safety that keeps police out of schools. The report calls for increasing counselor presence in schools, investing in emotional and mental health services, providing a culturally responsive education, and broadening the definition of safety to include youth of color and LGBTQ youth.

Youth of color are the experts of their experiences and stories, and time and again, they are saying that they show up to learn in schools and are demanding that schools create environments conducive to that learning. And CE youth are using art, grassroots organizing, and coalition-building to envision a better future for themselves and raise their voices for critical policy decisions.

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Marisa Stubbs is Critical Exposure’s Development & Communications Director and brings more than 15 years of experience in nonprofit administration, fundraising, youth development, program management, and curriculum development. Outside of a stint as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa, she has focused primarily on building the capacities of youth and small, community-based organizations. Prior to Critical Exposure, Marisa served as Executive Director of Food For Life, a social enterprise and culinary job training program for opportunity youth in DC that she founded in early 2011.