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Opinion: We Want To End The School-To-Prison Pipeline. 2020 Democrats Are Starting To Listen.

Last week Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren engaged with young leaders about the school-to-prison pipeline. Who else will step up?

Posted on December 3, 2019, at 4:32 p.m. ET


Center for Popular Democracy

Twyla Joseph speaks with Bernie Sanders at a roundtable last week.

Last week, youth leaders from across the country spoke with two leading presidential candidates to share our vision for schools free of police, dehumanizing security measures, and harsh school discipline policies. Anybody who wants to lead our country needs to listen to young people, who are the leaders of today and are shaping the political climate. And it’s not just about listening: They need to push for the solutions we know will work.

We have seen the impact of the school-to-prison pipeline firsthand: One of us is an organizer working with Black and Latinx youth, the other is a young Black woman still attending public school in an underfunded community of color in New York. We know how racist school discipline policies and practices rip young people of color from their classrooms into the criminal legal system, deportation, and ultimately, cages.

Last week Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren listened to our stories and heard our vision. Our roundtable with Sanders last week had its origins in a question he was asked by a young person from Pittsburgh earlier this year at the People’s Convention. Would he meet with young people from across the country to discuss the school-to-prison and -deportation pipelines?

He did, and Sanders engaged with our questions and began what we hope is an ongoing conversation. Youth leaders from the Center for Popular Democracy Action and Alliance for Educational Justice networks asked whether he could get behind our vision for police-free schools, defunding criminalizing infrastructure in schools, ending cooperation between schools and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and passing policies to protect the civil rights of young people.

Young people have also continued engagement on this issue with other campaigns — most notably, Sen. Warren and former Housing secretary Julián Castro. On a Make the Road Action call last week with Warren, a youth member asked directly if her administration would end all federal programs and funding for school police and the criminalization of school infrastructure, and instead incentivize school districts to adopt restorative approaches to school discipline. The debate on these critical issues is heating up.

Across the country, Black students represent 15% of public school students and 31% of all students referred to law enforcement. Other students of color are also disproportionately arrested in schools. In Arizona, Native American students are 8% of all students, and 23% of students arrested. In Connecticut, Latinx students are 23% of all students, but 35% of students arrested. For normal youth behavior, students of color are being sent to courtrooms, jails, and detention centers, while their white peers are directed toward academic, social, emotional, and mental health support.

Students of color have been disproportionately impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline ever since police were introduced into our schools in the 1950s and ’60s as a response to demands for civil rights and an adequate education. Student uprisings in East Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Boston were all met with violent police repression. School police departments were established in hyper-segregated urban cities, setting the foundation for embedding the criminal justice system into schools. An ongoing narrative of school crime waves and dangerous schools was created to justify criminalization and oppression of young people.

In the 1990s, schools became sites for mass criminalization. With the 1994 crime bill, the federal government started the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program and other “public safety” grant programs that funneled a billion dollars to subsidize police and security infrastructure in schools. Following the tragedy in Columbine and more recently in Parkland, state and local school districts poured millions more into police, metal detectors, and invasive security.

But after billions of dollars spent “hardening” learning environments, there is no evidence police and metal detectors make schools any safer. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that the racialized targeting of students of color to control, oppress, and strip us of our right to an education continues. Research shows the number of police officers stationed in a school is more closely correlated with the number of Black students attending it than any crime statistic. It also shows Black students are more likely to be arrested for subjective, low-level infractions, such as disorderly conduct, disturbing the school, or disrupting the educational process. Policies and practices that were used to criminalize communities of color have been fully integrated into the educational process.

There is a growing movement led by students to dismantle the school-to-prison and school-to-deportation pipelines. We can disrupt these systems by ending federal funds for police and invasive security measures in schools; supporting the removal of police from schools; and fully funding restorative justice, indigenous peacemakers, and trauma-informed practitioners.

Ahead of the 2020 election, young Black and brown young people across the country are demanding that those running to be the next president listen and engage with us on this critical issue of education and racial justice. Youth leaders are seeking a firm commitment from candidates by signing on to the Youth Mandate for Presidential Candidates: Permanently Dismantle the School-to-Prison-and-Deportation Pipeline. Over 150 organizations have already signed; three presidential candidates — Sanders, Warren, and Castro — have already released plans to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. We welcome their proposals.

We know from our experience that schools can’t be safe and supportive places while home to police, metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs, and dehumanizing security measures. Spending money to retrain police officers is not going to address the fundamental problem that, in our society, police will always make students of color less safe in their schools. What’s needed are stronger relationships with teachers; restorative justice; social, emotional, and mental health support; and fully funded schools.

We will continue to engage with Sen. Sanders, Sen. Warren, and all candidates to embrace our vision and adopt the Youth Mandate. It’s time to finally abolish the school-to-prison pipeline, and we are organizing our friends, families, and communities to continue that fight through the election. We won’t stop until all young people are free.


Twyla Joseph is a 17-year-old youth member of Make the Road Action. She organizes her community around educational justice, criminal justice, and immigration justice.

Kesi Foster, lead organizer with Make the Road Action.

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