Statement by Youth of Color on school safety and gun Violence in America in the Aftermath of the Mass Shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school icon

Statement by Youth of Color on school safety and gun Violence in America in the Aftermath of the Mass Shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school

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Facebook/youcantbuildpeacewithapiece / 323-235-4243 / /

Statement by Youth of Color
in America in the Aftermath of the
Mass Shooting at Sandy Hook ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

We can imagine the pain and suffering that the youth and families in Newtown, Connecticut are experiencing. As youth growing up on some of America’s deadliest streets, we are all too familiar with gun violence and its impacts. Too many of us have been shot and shot at. We have buried our friends and our family members. Nearly all of us have been to more funerals than graduations. No one wants the violence to stop more than we do.

But, we have also seen how attempts to build public safety with security systems, armed police and prisons have failed. We want college prep, not prison prep.

President Nixon declared the War on Drugs and enacted the first use of zero tolerance laws in communities. President Reagan expanded the War on Drugs and his Secretary of Education, William Bennett, enacted zero tolerance in schools. School shootings were used to expand these policies at the local, state and federal level, most famously by President Clinton following the Columbine shootings. For forty years, federal, state and local dollars have gone toward the massive build-up of police departments, juvenile halls, jails, prisons, Immigration enforcement and detention, and border security while simultaneously severe cuts have been made to our school and higher education budgets. Locally, these policies resulted in the takeover of school security by police departments and school resource officers.

As a result, in communities of color throughout the nation, students now experience a vicious school-to-jail track. Despite the fact that school shootings have overwhelmingly happened in white schools, youth of color have paid the price. We have been handcuffed and humiliated in front of other students and staff for “offenses” as small as being late to school; detained in police interrogation rooms at our school; expelled from school for carrying nail clippers, markers or baseball caps; and arrested – even in elementary schools – for fights that used to be solved in the principal’s office. With our backpacks searched and our lockers and cars tossed, at the end of a billy club or the butt of a gun, knees down-hands up, or face down on cold concrete or burning asphalt – we have experienced the true face of “public safety.” These policies haven’t protected us, helped us to graduate or taught us anything about preventing violence. They have taught us to fear a badge, to hate school and to give up on our education. We understand too well that guns in anyone’s hands are not the solution. You can’t build peace with a piece.

Effective Solutions to School Safety

The movement to end the school-to-jail track, mass incarceration and deportation of youth of color is our generation’s civil and human rights struggle. Throughout the nation, our efforts are pressuring school districts and state legislatures to dismantle unfair discipline practices that force youth out of school, and to move instead toward positive student supports that not only dramatically increase school safety but also improve graduation rates. The tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School must not interrupt this progress or return us to policies and practices that are racist, inhumane and unjust.

Specifically, we are calling on all federal, state and local officials to:

1. End Zero Tolerance and other policies that take away school-based decision-making and force schools to suspend, expel and arrest students in order to be in compliance with the law or to receive federal or state funding.

^ 2. Eliminate willful defiance, disorderly conduct and other minor infractions as punishable by suspension, expulsion, ticketing or arrest.

3. Reject efforts to expand police and military in our schools as well as razor/barbed wire, security gates, metal detectors, surveillance and increased use of handcuffs and police detention inside and around our campuses. Replace school police and school resource officers with intervention/peacebuilders and the other alternatives listed below.

^ 4. Reject efforts to increase criminal penalties, mandatory minimums, gun enhancements and the transfer of more youth into adult courts that will unfairly target youth of color for extreme sentencing and decades of incarceration.

5. Fund Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) – specific strategies educators can use to reward positive student behavior, hold students accountable for our actions in ways that keep us in school, cause self-reflection and growth, and improve our relationships with school staff.

^ 6. Fund Community Intervention/Peacebuilders in schools – trusted community leaders who are trained to provide safe passage to and from schools; create a safety perimeter in and around schools especially during breaks and lunch; reach out to students who are regularly late or missing from school; work with youth who are acting out in class or on campus; prevent inter-group or inter-neighborhood conflict – often contributing to or stemming from neighborhood conflicts that, if unresolved, can lead to serious violence in the community; rumor control to prevent future violence and retaliation; run violence prevention, conflict mediation and restorative/transformative justice meetings; and make home visits to students who are struggling in school.

^ 7. Fund Restorative/Transformative Justice (RJ/TJ) in schools, which develops the skills of students, staff and other community members in conflict mediation and problem solving, de-escalation of violence, and techniques to defuse bullying, harassment and disrespect. RJ/TJ involves students and others in solving problems such as truancy, fights, bullying, theft, intoxication, vandalism and failure to follow school directives without resorting to suspension, expulsion, ticketing and/or arrest. In addition, youth and staff learn skills that we can use to improve relationships and solve conflicts outside of school.

^ 8. Support the development of schools as Community Centers open year around, after school and on weekends to extend the school day, build public safety, and increase student attendance and achievement through homework help, tutoring, college preparation, counseling and health/mental health care (many community schools have on-site health/mental health clinics), job training and placement, arts and recreation, even night school for parents and older family members. Schools that operate as community centers also increase family involvement in schools, leading to improved student relationships with parents/guardians and increased graduation rates.

^ 9. Provide every student pre-school through college with a Metro/bus/public transportation pass to ensure we have transportation to and from school, while also providing unlimited transportation to essential resources throughout our communities including employment, housing, food, health care, etc.

^ 10. Ensure that every young person on Probation or Parole and all youth coming home from lock-up are immediately enrolled in a quality education program, and end the illegal blocking of system-involved youth from schools and entire districts. In order to ensure immediate enrollment, ensure that everyone who spends 3 or more weeks detained or incarcerated leaves lock-up with a state ID, birth certificate, social security card, immunization records, medication (if needed) and connection to health/mental health referrals, updated transcript and test scores, and a voter registration card (optional). For undocumented youth, we must leave lock-ups knowing the risks of deportation especially for convicted people and with referrals for immigration assistance.

^ 11. End the discrimination against undocumented youth, the cooperation of school districts and local law enforcement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (including the Secure Communities Program), and eliminate barriers to all immigrant youths’ access to education and student supports from pre-school through college.

This is Why You Should Support These Recommendations:

^ 1. The voice of youth and communities of color is usually absent from the debates on violence in America.

2. More than 96 percent (96.2) of school-based shootings in America have been caused by white shooters in overwhelmingly white schools and white communities. Yet, the policies that are created in response to these horrible incidents criminalize, push-out, prosecute, imprison and deport youth of color at much higher rates.

^ 3. There is little to no recognition or support for youth of color who are victims of gun violence.

4. Zero tolerance and other harsh school discipline policies unfairly target youth of color.

5. Positive relationships and opportunities – not guns – create safe schools.

^ 6. Schools look and operate more and more like prisons with harmful impacts on students.

7. Schools that are heavily policed have higher rates of school push-out and – as a result – lower graduation rates.

8. Police in and around schools are much more expensive than more effective school safety strategies.

^ 9. Students who are pushed out of school are most often pushed into an inferior, substandard education, isolated in our local districts’ least resourced schools.

10. Students who are pushed out are more likely to be victimized by the violence of the streets.

11. School safety policies based on fear also exclude many of the people who are most qualified to build and maintain safe schools as volunteers or school staff because they have convictions.

^ 12. Schools that are heavily policed exist in communities that are already heavily policed.

13. Officials have focused on harsh prosecution and punishment that impact youth of color at much higher rates.

14. Guns are much more likely to kill unintended victims than targets.

^ 15. Any gun control strategy has to address gun manufacturing, as well as how the guns get to our streets.

16. America’s addiction to guns corresponds with our reliance on armed law enforcement to solve all school and community problems.

17. There is a real and legitimate fear of law enforcement in poor communities and communities of color that must be addressed if we are ever to solve violence in our nation.

Data and Additional Support for Each Statement

^ 1. The voice of youth and communities of color is usually absent from the debates on violence in America. Young people of color consistently experience higher rates of violence than white youth. Yet we are often excluded from conversations and solutions around violence prevention.  We have been part of numerous press conferences where the media have quoted everyone except us.  We have experienced the negative result of police and zero tolerance in schools, but we are not included in educational decisions on local, city, state, or federal levels. 

If you had a Commission on the Status of the Black Community and only white people were appointed to serve on it, there would be an outcry from officials and media. The same would be true for a Women’s Caucus with only men in its membership. But, every day, from city halls to the White House, adults discuss what youth are experiencing and decide what youth need without ever talking to us.1

We are the experts on school and community safety.  We need to be at the center of decision-making regarding policy changes that will impact our blocks and our classrooms.  Silencing us keeps the bars up, the fingers pointed, the guns drawn, and the streets and our schools unsafe. No more incarceration without representation! 

2. More than 96 percent (96.2) of school-based shootings in America have been caused by white shooters in overwhelmingly white schools and white communities. Yet, the policies that are created in response to these horrible incidents criminalize, push-out, prosecute, imprison and deport youth of color at much higher rates than white youth.

^ 3. There is little to no recognition or support for youth of color who are victims of gun violence.

Among 10 to 24 year-olds, homicide is the leading cause of death for African Americans; the second leading cause of death for Latinos; and the third leading cause of death for Native Americans/First Nations and Alaska Natives. Homicide rates among African-American males, age 10-24 are the highest in the nation - 51.5 per 100,000; 25 times higher than for (non-Latino) White males in the same age group (2.9 per 100,000).2

When shootings occur in predominantly white schools and/or communities, the response is very different than when youth are shot in our neighborhoods. For example, when the Columbine and Sandy Hook shootings occurred, the media, mental health and child guidance experts rushed to the scenes, offered support to students and their families, and searched for answers – “How could this happen in America?” The assertion is that the youth who are shot are innocent and even the shooters are “troubled,” “bullied,” and/or “mentally ill.”

What the media and officials really mean is “How could this happen in white America?” Because, by comparison, our murders rarely get more than a mention in the homicide statistics. Often, we are not even named: “Shot – Black male, 16;” or “Found dead by handgun, Latino teen, presumed victim of gang rivalry.” Because our murders are rarely covered, they are also considered important, and mental health and other supports never arrive at our schools and streets to check on the wellbeing of survivors. Both the shooters and the victims are immediately discounted as “gangsters” and “monsters” – often without any evidence of this fact. No one searches for answers in our diaries, asks about our histories of abuse and trauma, or questions how such levels of violence occur in our families and communities. The assumption is that we are all violent – no wonder we die at such alarming rates. (In the past 31/2 years, the Youth Justice Coalition, located on the border between South Central Los Angeles and Inglewood, has known 40 young people connected to the center who have been killed by community or police violence. Despite the fact that the organization has regularly notified the media and the public about the killings and the accompanying funerals, candlelight vigils and repasts, not a single journalist, elected official or mental health institution has ever appeared to offer support to the survivors or to get a more complete picture of the victim.)

In fact, in any search for coverage on the issue of gun violence in America, it is easier to come across statistics that frame young people of color as chronic perpetrators of crime and violence than to find numbers that tell the true story we already know: that we are the victims of gun violence at a higher rate than any other group in the nation, and our schools are one of the few safe spaces in our neighborhoods for both us and our families. For example, in 2010, African Americans represented 13 percent of the nation’s population, yet accounted for 49 percent of all homicide victims. The homicide rate for Black victims in the United States was 16.32 per 100,000. In comparison, the overall national homicide rate was 4.42 per 100,000 and the national homicide rate for whites was 2.66 per 100,000.3

We are stereotyped as criminals even when we are killed or injured. Just as when we are suspected of being the shooter, the assumption when we are killed or injured is that we were in some way guilty of wrongdoing – especially that we are “gang involved.” In fact, the sheriffs in Los Angeles County have used a term when shootings happen in our communities that they assume have victims who are connected to the streets – “NHI – No Humans Involved.”  But nationwide in 2010, only 15 percent of Black homicide victims (420 murders) were reported by law enforcement to be gang-related; and only 29 percent were related to another felony. 4

Even when Trayvon Martin was killed by a Community Watch vigilante while walking home from the store with Skittles and Iced Tea, the media and officials spent weeks re-victimizing him by suggesting that he must have been the aggressor. Just as it is true on the street, any increase of guns in schools – including the presence of police and military – threatens our lives. 

^ 4. Zero tolerance and other harsh school discipline policies unfairly target youth of color.

Just like a prison, our schools have no tolerance for anything we do wrong. There is no recognition that family responsibilities, the stress of the streets and personal problems can sometimes get in the way of our ability to learn. Zero tolerance isn't the way to run a school, where we are afraid to come because with one more absence we’ll get kicked out. Or where asking a question gets you sent to the office with a referral for defiance. Black and Brown youth first have to take little brothers and sisters to school on public transportation, because our mothers work the midnight shift, and we end up with handcuffs on our wrists for truancy when we’re a few minutes late to our own school. In middle class schools, they have counselors and student supports. In our schools it’s survival of the fittest. Poor, black and brown youth walk the streets, while rich and white walk the stage. Instead of having police and zero tolerance why not have real counselors and peacebuilders. That's REAL school safety.

Mississippi’s out-of-school suspension rates are nine times the national average and overwhelmingly impact African American youth. In Holmes County, students are suspended for wearing the wrong color belts, undershirts and shoes or for wearing bangle bracelets, hoop earrings or bringing certain types of combs to school. Students are still paddled in Mississippi – yes, corporal punishment is still in the Mississippi schools! We are sent to detention for being late and sprayed with mace for fighting, or simply arguing intensely. When fights occur, we are treated like prisoners, the school is put on lockdown and everyone eats lunch without talking. In one of Mississippi’s largest school districts, Jackson Public Schools, only 4% of school-based arrests during the 2010-2011 school year were for behavior that actually threatened students, staff, or the school. In fact, the most common “offense” for one-third of all arrests on school grounds, was for “disorderly conduct.” 5 In Lawrence County, Mississippi, Black students are eight times more likely to receive an out-of-school suspension than white students. In Meridian, Mississippi, a Black male student in the 8th grade was put on Probation by a youth court judge for getting into a fight. Since then, he has estimated that he has gone back and forth between school and the juvenile court system at least thirty times. Any infraction, even some as minor as being a few minutes late to class or wearing the wrong color socks in violation of the dress code, was counted as a violation of his probation and resulted in immediate suspension and incarceration in the local juvenile detention center. 6

In New York City, the NYPD School Safety Division arrested or ticketed more than 11 students each day in schools during the 2011-12 school year.  More than 95% of arrests were of Black or Latino students; 74% were of males; and 1-in-5 arrests were of students between the ages of 11 and 14. 7

In a recent survey of 954 middle and high school students in the Los Angles Unified School District, youth reported on the police activity we have experienced in our schools:

  • Police handcuffing students inside and outside school – 81.3%

  • Police stopping and frisking students in and around school - 64.9%

  • Metal detectors to enter school - 31.6%

  • Police and/or security doing locker searches - 49.8%

  • Police and/or security doing backpack searches - 71.3%

  • Dogs are brought into and/or around school to search for drugs - 47.2%

  • Students are searched or disciplined for having markers - 58.4%

  • Students are searched or disciplined for having tagging on their backpack or notebooks, or for having a “piece” book (with their drawings) - 51.8%

  • Police arrest students for fist fights - 67.9%

  • Police arrest or pull students out of class for talking back to teachers - 37.5%

  • Police and/or security claim students are in a gang - 43.3%

  • The school has a “room” for detaining students—like a police holding room – 39.1%

  • Police push you to leave school at the end of the school day when you are hanging out at school - 40.1%

  • Police counsel or support students - 17.7%

  • Police help solve conflicts without punishing or arresting people - 16.5%

  • The school is surrounded by high security fences, barbed wire and/or security gates on the windows - 36.7%

  • The school has no open grass or trees - 47.6%

  • The school, police or security have stopped you from speaking out or trying to organize for changes (such as passing out flyers) - 19.9%

  • The school police or security have stopped you from having a rally or marching out of school - 21.5% 8

^ 5. Positive relationships and opportunities – not guns – create safe schools.

Recently in Los Angeles, youth marched 50 miles from Sylmar Juvenile Hall to the Norwalk site of the nation’s largest Fusion Center that consolidates data from domestic police surveillance. Along the way, they surveyed 1,642 residents. When asked what are the three most important things L.A. could do to prevent violence and crime in our communities and schools, only 1.7 percent of the people surveyed said to expel and/or suspend more youth from school; 1.8 percent said to lock more youth up; 2.3 percent said to add more gang injunctions; and 8 percent said to hire more police. But, 73.4 percent said to give youth access to summer and after school jobs; 43.8 percent said to hire “former gang members” to run prevention programs and build truces; and 73.3 percent said to open youth centers after school and on weekends. 9

The California Endowment surveyed California voters and found that people “strongly believe that more mental health services and better emergency response training for school staff are the best strategies for preventing violence in schools.” When asked whether hiring a school counselor or a police officer would be more effective at preventing violence, surveyed voters chose counselors by more than two to one (67% to 26%) over police. 10

But, in California in 2010 – the most recent year that statistics have been released - there was one counselor for every 810 students. Nationally, the data is also bad where on average each school counselor is expected to work with more than 400 students. The American School Counselor Association recommends that at least one counselor is needed for every 250 students. But that is for the traditional role of checking on students’ grades and making sure they have what they need to graduate and get into college or a career. This doesn’t account for the counseling needs of students to address the much more difficult problems we face such as homelessness, violence, bullying, substance abuse or family separation through foster care or incarceration.

Similarly, in New York City public schools, there are 5,100 School Safety Agents who are employed and trained by the New York Police Department (NYPD). By comparison, there are only about 3,000 guidance counselors. 11

^ 6. Schools look and operate more and more like prisons with devastating impacts on students.

Within hours of the Sandy Hook shooting, schools in our communities were already increasing the presence of police and security. In Grenada, Mississippi, a high school installed metal detectors. When a student asked why, she was told by school administrators that the equipment was added because of the Newtown shootings. In Los Angeles, LAPD Chief, Charlie Beck, implemented increased police patrols and check-ins inside and around schools – including elementary schools. The community, students and parents were not consulted prior to making either of these policy changes.

We are already getting searched in our classrooms and hallways by police and drug-sniffing dogs; most of our schools have more police and Probation officers than guidance counselors; police raids and lock-downs of our campuses are common and increase the violence and fear; school security, school police and local police often increase conflicts in school or misread the roots of conflict; police and other school staff are using language, actions and policies that are racist, homophobic, anti-immigrant and sexist - increasing violence against individuals and groups of students; school staff no longer controls school discipline, so police regularly arrest people for things better handled at schools; our school newspapers are censored; we have little or no say in the running of our schools or the choosing of curriculum; student, teacher and parent solutions to school safety are usually not supported; and we still get a white-washed version of history, language and culture that adds to our anger at school and to inter-group tension and violence.

^ 7. Schools that are heavily policed have higher rates of school push-out and – as a result – lower graduation rates.

Across the U.S., schools with School Resource Officers (SRO) have nearly five times the rate of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without an SRO, even when controlling for poverty. 12 The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has the largest school police department in the nation. Arrests and referrals to the juvenile court system in LAUSD schools are much higher than districts without police – including at least 85,000 citations and arrests in recent years – most of which were for normal youth behavior, not serious threats to other students, staff or the school, and included close to 3 times as many citations distributed as New York City school police, the only school district larger than LAUSD. Between 2004-2009, 47,000 tickets were issued by the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles School Police Department (LASPD) for truancy alone. An additional 37,500 tickets and arrests took place between 2009-2011 by just the Los Angeles School Police Department for incidents as minor as truancy, disturbing the peace, vandalism and petty theft. 13

Students and school staff can work together to create safety without relying on armed police. In Mississippi, youth at Nollie Jenkins Family Center are studying a group of leaders called “Scholars of Peace” that once lived in Timbuktu, Mali. These scholars scripted many Arabic manuscripts that talked about peace keeping, astronomy and many other topics. Most importantly, the manuscripts talked about creating a culture of peace. The Scholars kept the level of violence down throughout the region through peaceful resolution to conflict. We can learn from our ancestors how to decrease school and community violence without the violent tactics used by law enforcement.

^ 8. Police in and around schools are also much more expensive than more effective school safety strategies.

On average, the cost of a single rookie police officer - with salary, weapon, uniform and car – is $165,000, at least three times more than a community intervention/peacebuilder, and more than twice as much as an experienced school counselor or social worker.

Once we get arrested, the cost differences are even more extreme. For example, the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation (CDCR) spends, on average, $261,000 a year to lock up one youth in a cell – the same cost as sending three youth to Harvard University with full tuition, room and board, books and expenses - $62,950 per student. The L.A. County Department of Probation spends $96,000 a year for one youth in a local youth prison (Probation camp) despite the fact that the county facilities have been under federal Department of Justice investigation for substandard conditions and miseducation for more than 15 years. In other words, for the same amount that L.A. County spends to lock a youth up, nearly two students could attend Stanford University all expenses paid ($58,846 per student, per year).

Seventy-four percent of the youth locked up and 81 percent of the adults locked up by the state of California are rearrested within three years of their release. When our schools fail to graduate half the students, they are threatened by state takeovers, charter school conversions, even closings. But when the police, court and prison system fails, they get even more money to fix themselves.

In Los Angeles, just 1 percent of the funding for the LAPD, Los Angeles County Sheriffs, District Attorney’s Office, City Attorney’s Office, County Probation Department and courts is $100 million dollars, enough to fund 50 youth center in our schools and communities, each with a $500,000 a year budget, open 3pm – midnight after school and on weekends, year around; 500 full time intervention/peacebuilders, and 25,000 youth jobs. That doesn’t include any funding from L.A. County’s 65 other police departments. 14

In the 1970s, before the massive expansion of the prison system, California had one of the best K-college school systems in the world. But in the last 33 years, the state build 21 prisons and only 3 universities, and now, the state is number one in prison spending, number 47 in K-12 education spending, and last – 50th – in spending for college and universities. Despite that history, California is investing billions more to build additional jails and prisons.

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