The “School-to-Prison Pipeline” Now Extends to Preschool. Meet the Activists Fighting Back.

Web ExclusiveOctober 05, 2018
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Brett Kavanaugh is outraged at the public scrutiny of his yearbook and teenage behavior. But across the country, black and brown students are being criminalized as early as the age of 3, leading to the “school-to-prison pipeline” that critics say now extends to even preschool. We speak with a roundtable of community activists who are all featured in a new book, Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement. In Chicago, we speak with Jitu Brown, national director of Journey for Justice. In Washington, D.C., we speak with Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, co-founder of Racial Justice NOW! and field organizer for the Dignity in Schools Campaign. In New York City, we speak with Mark Warren, co-author of “Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out!,” and E.M. Eisen-Markowitz, a restorative justice coordinator, high school teacher and board member of Teachers Unite.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2 of our discussion about—well, Brett Kavanaugh objects to being held accountable for his behavior in high school, so we’ve decided to look at the criminalization of black and brown students in high school and before, that’s led to what is known as the school-to-prison pipeline, even the preschool-to-prison pipeline.

For more in this continuation of our discussion, we have a roundtable of community activists engaged in the fight to save schools and push for alternatives to punishment and privatization, their voices highlighted in a really interesting new book called Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement.

n Chicago, Jitu Brown joins us, national director of the Journey for Justice. He’s been an education activist for over a quarter of a century, in 2015 led a successful 34-day hunger strike to prevent the closing of the Dyett High School in Chicago’s South Side.

In Washington, D.C., Zakiya Sankara-Jabar is with us, co-founder of Racial Justice NOW! and field organizer for the Dignity in Schools Campaign. She became active when her son was repeatedly suspended in preschool in Dayton, Ohio. The trouble began when he was 3 years old. She then campaigned for Dayton Public Schools to adopt a moratorium on pre-K suspensions.

Here in New York, E.M. Eisen-Markowitz is with us, a restorative justice coordinator and high school teacher, board member of Teachers Unite.

Also with us in studio, Mark Warren, who, along with David Goodman, a journalist, also my brother, co-authored Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! which brings together these voices and many more. Mark is a professor of public policy and public affairs at University of Massachusetts, Boston, founder and co-chair of the Urban Research-Based Action Network.

So, Mark, you talk about 75 percent of the black students in Texas have been suspended at some point?

MARK WARREN: That’s right. And I think people just are not aware of the absolute scale of the school-to-prison pipeline. So, this study showed that 75 percent of black students were suspended at some point in middle or high school. Eighty-three percent of black males were suspended, which means almost every single one. Right? We’re talking about—

AMY GOODMAN: Were suspended at some point, for what?

MARK WARREN: Well there’s a variety of things. But I think studies have shown that the large majority of suspensions are for things like willful defiance, which can be standing up to authority. This is something that’s a very subjective interpretation on the part of the teacher. But very few of these suspensions are for things that would be considered of a violent nature or a possession of some kind of a firearm—less than 3 percent, generally. So, very few are for anything that’s really a serious matter. The large majority are not.

But I also want to say that, you know, this is a book about also how things can change. Right?

ZAKIYA SANKARA-JABAR: Right.

MARK WARREN: The point of Lift Us Up is to lift up the stories of where grassroots people have really worked to change this. So, for example, in Los Angeles, a grassroots coalition led by young people, high school students themselves, as well as parents of color and their allies, pushed for a school climate bill of rights, that was passed in 2013, and that changed the discipline policies in Los Angeles, to eliminate suspensions for willful defiance. And so, the number of suspensions went down from, on average, 75,000 students being suspended a year to less than 6,000 students being suspended a year. And this is the kind of thing that’s been happening across the country, where there have been grassroots organizations pushing for change in districts and states all around. And these are the—I think people need to understand that students and parents in communities of color are not just victims of the school-to-prison pipeline. They are organizing to become change agents.

AMY GOODMAN: Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, in Part 1 of this discussion, you told us what happened to your son, starting at the age of 3, and he was suspended, what that meant for him. But then, talk about your movement and what you accomplished, first in Dayton, Ohio, where this all happened, and now being in Washington, part of a national movement.

ZAKIYA SANKARA-JABAR: Yes. Thanks again, Amy, for having me. And I think that, you know, what everyone said is true. Now, we’re focusing on solutions and focusing on making sure that our efforts also highlight the narrative of poor and working-class black and brown parents. That’s the base that I come out of organizing in Dayton, Ohio. And so, there is not just a pathologization of our children. There’s also a pathologization and negative narrative around our parenting and who we are as parents. And so, we have seen, in Dayton, as covered by the Dayton Daily News, during our campaigns for restorative practices, social emotional learning in Dayton Public Schools and the prevention of suspending pre-K students—we also found that parents had been losing their jobs because their young people had been constantly suspended. And not just suspended, Dayton Public Schools, unfortunately, was one of the districts in the Big Eight in Ohio who was also expelling 3- and 4-year-olds. And so, the story of parents losing their jobs, again, covered by the Dayton Daily News, is something that we see at the national level. The plight of the parents who are also going through this and experiencing this is not covered very much.

And so, we wanted to make sure that in our book—in our story in the book that we highlighted that we do love our children, that if you are seeing young people show up at school presenting challenges, and then there is support systems for those young people, we also need to have support systems for parents, especially in our communities. In West Dayton, there is not access to a grocery store, right? There are not access to good-paying jobs. There’s not access even to a hospital now. Good Samaritan Hospital, the only hospital in West Dayton, just recently closed. I mean, so you see these communities who are starved for resources that you need for basic—that you need for basic living. And so, that’s something that we have been organizing around and pushing back, not just on the school district, but also on the city of Dayton, the mayor, and making sure that we’re asking for all of the wraparound services and basic needs that we need for our communities as a whole, while also making sure that schools have a positive school climate and culture, where they’re treating the students and parents with dignity and respect.

AMY GOODMAM: E.M. Eisen-Markowitz, talk about what happened in New York. There was a change of policy because of organizers like you, teachers throughout the city really pushing hard around changing suspension policy.

E.M. EISEN-MARKOWITZ: So, in the middle of the year last year, in 2017, there was a change in the New York City discipline code that required that a suspension for B21, which is for defying authority—so, similar to what we’ve heard in other districts around the country, especially in large districts with lots of black and brown young people—that was changed, so in order for a student to be suspended for, quote-unquote, “defying authority,” the school must first get an approval from the district. So, that is—and suspensions are down 75 percent, just from the middle of last year during that discipline code change in New York City.

However, there has not been any resources or like large-scale training that has come along with that policy change. And so, the organizers—and I want to be clear that there have been—that Teachers Unite is a part of the Dignity in Schools Campaign. But I would say that the large majority of folks that have been organizing for those policy changes are the parents and young people organizations and the advocacy organizations that they’ve allied with, that we’re hearing about from Jitu and from Zakiya. And actually, there’s only two educator organizing groups in the Dignity in Schools Campaign Coalition. So, while teachers are trying to make these things real at our school sites, it doesn’t—we need the advocacy and the organizing of young people and families in and out of the schools to make those policy changes.

AMY GOODMAN: And in California, this whole movement clearly suffered a setback when California Governor Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have expanded a statewide ban on suspensions for students in kindergarten to third grade to include fourth through eighth graders, the ban focusing on suspensions for, quote, “disruption and defiance.” A recent UCLA study found black seventh and eighth graders lost nearly four times the number of school days to such suspensions than white students. The significance of this, Mark?

MARK WARREN: Sure. And, you know, this is true nationally, right? So, nationally, black students lose five times as many school days to suspensions as white students do. I think that it’s a struggle that’s going on—right?—that this is a fight for the soul of education. You know, is education going to be around criminalizing our young people, harshly disciplining them and pushing them out of school? I mean, you may be aware that barely a slim majority of black students actually graduate from high school in this country. It’s a national crisis.

AMY GOODMAN: Say that figure again.

MARK WARREN: Only a slight majority of black students actually graduate from high school in this country at this point. You know, and it’s a result of policies and practices like harsh discipline, but also the lack of resources in schools, a curriculum that is not culturally relevant to the lives of young people in black and brown communities. So, there’s a whole—you know, pushout is not just about discipline. Pushout is about a whole set of factors—closing schools in black and brown communities, privatizing them.

AMY GOODMAN: Which is clearly something Jitu Brown has been fighting in Chicago. And, Jitu, we speak today in the midst of the Van Dyke trial—officer Van Dyke, who killed Laquan McDonald, 17 years old, shot 16 times, now the video showing this teenager actually moving away from the police officer. The issue of the police in schools, Jitu?

JITU BROWN: Again, I think that—you know, there was a incident in Philadelphia a few years ago. It was called the assault at Benjamin Franklin High School. And there was a young man named Brian Burney, who was a member of the Philadelphia Student Union, who had to use the restroom. He was 17 years old. He had an orange in his hand. And the police officer wouldn’t let him go to the bathroom. The school resource officer was, you know, 6’3”, 230, big guy; Brian Burney, maybe 5’1”, 130 pounds soaking wet. And he wouldn’t let Brian go to the bathroom. He told him to go get a pass. Brian said, “I’m about to pee on myself. I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” He wouldn’t let Brian go. Brian tried to run past him. He grabbed his orange. He threw it against the wall. The police officer punched him in the face and put him in a chokehold. And they criminalized Brian after that and tried to get him—you know, tried to expel him from school. And the Philadelphia Student Union built a very strong local coalition, and then Journey for Justice and other national groups supported. And we labeled it the assault at Benjamin Franklin High School.

Something happened at a press conference in front of Philadelphia Public Schools. A young white student, who was also a member of Philadelphia Student Union, stood up. And he said, “You know, at my school, we smoke just as much weed as they do. We fight. We yell. We cuss. We argue with our teachers. There are no metal detectors and no police officers in our building.” And he shut the entire press conference down, because, I think, at the end of the day, that’s the reality we don’t want to look at.

The reality is that America hates us. And since America hates us, it is reflected through policing. You just mentioned the piece around Van Dyke. We are bracing ourselves for a “not guilty” verdict, because even the mainstream media is doing things like giving his family interviews, showing pictures of him walking with a bulletproof vest on, surrounded by police, trying to make him into some type of victim for pumping 16 bullets into a teenager. Right? So, why? Why is that even on the table? Because we are not valued. Why are we talking about the suspension of kindergarten through third graders? Because we’re not valued. That value system, that hatred, is what’s fueling this. Why, last year, just last year, did Rahm Emanuel close all the high schools in the Englewood community on the South Side of Chicago? All of them. Why did Zakiya just mention the fact that they don’t have a hospital or a grocery store, basic quality of life institutions that are denied us?

ZAKIYA SANKARA-JABAR: That’s right.

JITU BROWN: Now, what I’d like to say also, Amy, is that the connection between the school-to-prison pipeline—and I appreciate Mark for really including school privatization in that effort. Every city in the United States, without fail, every city—New Orleans, Detroit, Chicago, Philadelphia, Cleveland—

ZAKIYA SANKARA-JABAR: Dayton.

JITU BROWN: —Oakland—you can go on and on. Every city where school privatization has taken root—and school privatization takes the school-to-prison pipeline to another level, the way that young people are treated in charters and things of that nature. Every city where school privatization has taken root, and the loss of affordable housing, you’ve seen a massive decrease in the African-American population. Every city—Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Oakland, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore. And so, to us, that’s not a coincidence. The school-to-prison pipeline is a weapon to remove us from these spaces. Since we’re not valued, we’re treated as if we’re not valued. And these spaces are now being taken over by white folks who fled the cities in the '50s and the ’60s. And so, I don't think we need to—we should ignore that point, because this is about our right to exist, our right to exist in cities that we helped shape through our sweat equity.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, of course—

ZAKIYA SANKARA-JABAR: That’s right, our right to exist.

AMY GOODMAN: And then, of course, when people go to prison, it makes it much more difficult in most parts of the country to be able, when you come out, to have a say in how your country, your city, your town is shaped, because many people are stripped of their right to vote.

JITU BROWN: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: But, Zakiya, you wanted to get in a word edgewise there.

ZAKIYA SANKARA-JABAR: No. Thanks, Amy. No, I completely agree with Jitu’s assessment. And I was just adding, you know, not just our right to exist, but our right to exist and thrive in our communities. I know from my family, you know, in Dayton, Ohio, there are black folks that were a part of the Great Migration north, you know, fleeing the mobs of white supremacists in the South, you know, to good-paying jobs at the General Motors plant, that was all over the Midwest at one point. And so, you know, these are people who are now elders in our communities in West Dayton, who own their homes, who play by all the right rules, you know, and live to try to make their own American dream.

And now it’s being threatened by the very same things that Jitu was talking about, by the starvation, the literal starvation, of basic needs of West Dayton, which is predominantly African-American. And so, it is the starvation to force us out of our communities, where we own homes, to allow whiter communities, white people, to come in, to buy up the properties for a little of nothing and basically take over the neighborhood. Jitu is absolutely right. You know, we’ve seen that all over the country in the bigger cities, but I just wanted to flag that it’s also happening in smaller Midwest cities like a Dayton, Ohio. And it’s very unfortunate. And it’s absolutely connected to the school-to-prison pipeline and the hyper-policing that we now see when the communities are struggling for resources. Instead of, you know, making sure that resources are there and thriving for communities, they’re replacing hospitals with more police.

JITU BROWN:I That’s right. Amy, could I—

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, in your last minute on satellite, Jitu.

JITU BROWN: Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am. I would just say, you know, a great man once taught me that—avoid strong opinions, for they suit weak men and women better. And public policy now is being implemented based on a white America’s opinion of our communities. And what we’re—so what we’re saying now is that the fight, bigger than—even bigger than the school-to-prison pipeline, is to make America realize the demand for equity, because we must have equity in how children are disciplined. We must have—now, I’m not saying equality—equity in school curriculum. We must have equity in how schools are resourced. So, the money that Betsy DeVos is saying that she wants to spend on guns, why doesn’t she try fully funding IDEA and Title I?

ZAKIYA SANKARA-JABAR: That’s right.

JITU BROWN: So that those resources can flow into our neighborhood schools.

AMY GOODMAN: Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, can you talk about the effect of police in the schools, and what you are pushing for?

ZAKIYA SANKARA-JABAR: Absolutely. Dignity in Schools Campaign, where I’m the national field organizer, was one of the first, if not the first national organization that came out against the regular presence of law enforcement in schools. We have a platform called Counselors Not Cops, that was launched in 2017, where we pulled together all of the incidents, including the incident that Jitu just referenced, the incident where the young woman was snatched and manhandled by a white SRO down in South Carolina, Nia Kenny. All of these different—

AMY GOODMAN: And SRO stands for?

ZAKIYA SANKARA-JABAR: School resource officer. Thank you. School—

AMY GOODMAN: When he dragged her, ripped her out of her chair.

ZAKIYA SANKARA-JABAR: Yes, ripped her out of her chair. Terrible. Listen, they’re all over the country, and we have members in 26 states, including the District of Columbia, over a hundred members across this country. And so, we went through a very lengthy process with talking with our members, which are parents, young people, as you know, teacher organizations, and really had a deep conversation about what the regular presence of law enforcement means. We know that it disproportionately impacts students of color, but, in particular, black students, and, even more particular, black male students, as has been highlighted earlier.

I just have to go back to the point that Jitu talked about earlier, where there is a deep hatred and in a value system of how we view black children, starting even at 3 years old, how we view black girls and black boys. Unfortunately, black girls are disciplined six times as much as white girls, whereas for our young black male students, while they represent, you know, most of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions and even interactions with law enforcement in schools, are three times as likely to be suspended than their white male counterparts. So this is absolutely an issue that is prevalent. It has been, even before, unfortunately, this administration. And we continue to organize and push for the right solutions, that are not hardening schools but are using positive approaches like restorative justice, that are using positive approaches like social emotional learning and trauma-informed care. And again, to Mark’s point, it also goes back to resources. So we have organizations also in Dignity in Schools that are make-suring that we’re pushing for equitable distribution of resources in our communities that need them the most.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Warren, in your book, Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement—and the people we have here today are the people who are on those front lines—explain what you mean by “educational justice.”

MARK WARREN: Sure. What we mean is that the failures of our public school system are really a profound issue of racial and social justice in this country. It’s really coming out—the failures of our public school system really come out of the lack of power that low-income communities of color have in this country. And it’s a question of racial equity—Jitu spoke to this—the kinds of resources that are going into whiter, more affluent communities, compared to the lack of resources that are going into our urban and low-income communities. It’s a question of the way that poverty and racism interlock into our society, so that, for example, we don’t believe that you’re going to—we’re going to solve the issues facing public education solely within the four walls of schools, because education is a fundamental part of a larger systemic racism in our society, that children are coming to school living without adequate housing, in families where their parents are struggling to make a living—even when they’re working, they’re living in poverty—where there’s environmental degradation, where there’s police violence in communities. So we need a broader social justice movement that has public education at its heart, if we’re really going to transform the conditions and create an empowering public education system that really lifts up our young people and prepares them to be not just cogs in an industrial machine or fodder for our prisons, but really, you know, healthy, empowered participants in a socially just society.

AMY GOODMAN: E.M., here in New York, the thrust of the educational justice movement now, what you feel have been the greatest victories and the biggest obstacles?

E.M. EISEN-MARKOWITZ: I mean, I think even in the 13 years that I’ve been working in New York City public schools, there’s been a lot of rhetorical change around energy and like language to interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and the preschool-to-prison pipeline and to reduce racial disparities in discipline and to create community schools and to empower parents. There’s a lot of change in rhetoric. There’s very, very, very little change in money, in resources. And it makes it really impossible to, as, you know, in teacher—like Mark said, we believe that the issues that are facing young people in schools are much bigger than the four walls of schools. And as teachers, we experience that every single day. Schools are microcosms of what’s happening across our neighborhoods, across our country, around the world. But there’s a reason why we focus in schools, too. There is change that can be done collaboratively in the school building with the people who are there every day, but those changes are really limited, if we’re just talking and we’re not actually reallocating resources. So, a big campaign like we heard from Zakiya nationally in Dignity in Schools Campaign is a divestment from policing and from metal detectors and a reinvestment in positive and supportive school cultures.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, when we were talking last night at your event at New York University, NYU, when I was asking you about guns in the schools, you were saying it’s not just guns, it’s the money they’re putting into metal detectors.

E.M. EISEN-MARKOWITZ: Absolutely. So, it’s money that they’re putting into metal detectors and the expansion of the—we call them school safety. We don’t we use the word ”SRO,” or “school resource officer,” in New York City. But they’re NYPD. So, they’re a division of the NYPD. They don’t respond to—so, and I want to be clear—

AMY GOODMAN: So, the money that goes into guns in the schools, or hired guns.

E.M. EISEN-MARKOWITZ: Right. And those are the folks that then run the metal detectors. And there are lots of schools in New York City. There are over—I actually don’t know the number right now, so I won’t say it. But there’s a number of schools in New York City that still have metal detectors. And there are school communities that are organizing against the metal detectors right now, even at the same time as sort of like nationally there is, and specifically in New York City, there’s a push for more policing, because of the incidents that we’ve seen in schools. We are pushing against metal detectors and against the overfunding of police and policing of our young people.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but continue to cover the education justice movement. Here in New York. E.M. Eisen-Markowitz, restorative justice coordinator, high school teacher and Teachers Unite board member, and Mark Warren, professor of public policy and public affairs at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, founder and co-chair of the Urban Research-Based Action Network. His new book, co-edited with David Goodman, is called Lift Us Up, Don’t Push Us Out! Voices from the Front Lines of the Educational Justice Movement. Jitu Brown, national director of the Journey for Justice Alliance, speaking to us from Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel has recently announced he won’t be running for mayor again. Zakiya Sankara-Jabar, co-founder of Racial Justice NOW! and field organizer for the Dignity in Schools Campaign, speaking to us from Washington, D.C.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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Lift Us Up: Meet the Activists on the Front Lines of the Battle for Educational Justice in America

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