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"Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track - Lawyers and Organizers Partnering for Change"

July/August 2005 issue of Poverty & Race

The recent videotape of a five-year old in St. Petersburg, Florida underscored what many education advocates already knew: Zero tolerance has gone too far. No longer does a temper tantrum, such as the one thrown by the St. Petersburg girl after a jelly bean counting game, result in a trip to the principal’s office; it also leads to handcuffs and a ride to the police station. Policies once meant to rid schools of guns have been expanded, causing many schools to become feeders into the juvenile justice system. Outcry by grassroots organizations about the unfair and discriminatory nature of school disciplinary policies and practices led the Advancement Project (AP) to spend the past five years examining the evolution of these policies and the devastating consequences they have on students, particularly students of color. Recognizing that the individuals who are most impacted–parents, children and youth—often have little or no support in efforts to challenge these practices, the Project has partnered with grassroots youth and parent groups to mount reform campaigns.

The Advancement Project was founded six years ago by veteran civil rights lawyers who were eager to develop and inspire community-based solutions to racial and social justice issues by using the same high-quality legal analysis and public education campaigns that produced the landmark civil rights victories of earlier eras. AP’s founding team believed that structural racism could be dismantled by multi-racial grassroots organizing focused on changing public policies and supported by lawyers and communications strategies.

From our inception, we have worked “on-the-ground,” helping organized communities of color dismantle and reform the unjust and inequitable policies that undermine the promise of democracy. To implement our theory of change, AP operates on two planes. On the local level, we offer direct, hands-on support for organized communities in their struggles for justice, providing legal and communications resources. On the national level, we actively broaden and extend the practice of community-centered racial justice lawyering, and change the public debate around issues impacting communities of color in order to provide an improved context for change. We are using this approach in our Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Project, a three-year, three-site youth and adult organizing effort to end the criminalization of children by their schools. We are partnering with Padres/Jovenes Unidos (Denver), Community Alliance for Reform in Education-CARE (Palm Beach County, Florida), and Southwest Youth Collaborative and the Children and Family Justice Center at Northwestern University Law School (Chicago).

Since the project’s launch in 2003, AP has engaged in participatory research with our partners to map and document the extent of the problem. We collected quantitative data and interviewed stakeholders to gain a deep understanding of the schoolhouse to jailhouse track in each of the sites. This work culminated in the March 2005 release of Education on Lockdown: The Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track, the purpose of which was to lay the groundwork for organizing efforts. The report’s findings have confirmed that students of color are being hurled into juvenile and criminal court for non-violent acts of misconduct. Furthermore, the research demonstrates that the role of law enforcement has significantly changed: Police have become increasingly responsible for mundane school discipline. For example:

  • From 2000 to 2004, referrals to law enforcement by Denver Public Schools rose 71%. In 2004, Black and Latino students were referred at twice and seven times the rates of their White peers, respectively. In that same year, 42% of these referrals were for conduct that could have been addressed in school: disruptive appearance, use of obscenities and minor fights.
  • In 2003, over 8,000 students were arrested in Chicago Public Schools. More than 40% of these arrests were for simple assault and battery–often nothing more than a threat or a harmless, weaponless fight. Although Black students comprise 50% of the student population, they comprised 77% of the school-based arrests.

In preparation for the release of the Education on Lockdown, AP provided media training and communications support to our partners. The report generated significant press coverage, which was amplified on the local level by our community partners, and has laid the foundation for them to build strong local alliances. The report is also being cited in school districts beyond the three sites and is prompting others to take action.

For example, because of Padres/Jovenes Unidos’ successful organizing around this issue, over 70 community members stood in solidarity with them at the press conference releasing the report. News coverage prompted a group of Latino parents from a neighboring school district to contact Padres/Jovenes Unidos for assistance. These parents reported that their children were among 17 students suspended or expelled for one year for watching a fight that occurred off school grounds. As Padres/Jovenes Unidos took on this issue, AP provided legal advice and strategic support. In consultation with AP lawyers and the Denver office of the Arnold & Porter lawfirm, Padres/Jovenes Unidos and the parents realized that the District had violated its own policies and state law. Consequently, they were able to negotiate an agreement with the school district to re-admit most of the students; remove from the student’s disciplinary records any reference to the suspensions; and provide the students with tutoring services to make up for the educational instructions the students missed. Padres/Jovenes Unidos’ commitment did not end there: The organization now has a representative serving on a committee to investigate these unlawful actions and implement reform.

In Palm Beach County and Chicago, too, the report has put this issue on the table. In Palm Beach County, AP and CARE have developed strong alliances with a juvenile court judge and lawyers at the public defender and legal aid offices, who are assisting in reform efforts. In Chicago, other local organizations have seized on the report as an opportunity to reform zero tolerance policies. Several groups have formed a task force that is developing a reform agenda and meeting with District officials.

The movement in these sites indicates that the partnership between lawyers and organizers can have a profound impact. With access to legal and policy research and strategic communications tools, organizers are better positioned to mobilize their communities for positive change. This work also has the potential of strengthening the capacity of the youth and adults involved to become engaged citizens and agents of change. In addition, by lifting the voices of local groups and impacted individuals into the national discourse on this issue, we are beginning to see a shift in public opinion, which will improve the likelihood of eliminating the unnecessary criminalization of youth.

Judith A. Brown is Co-Director of the Advancement Project. She has authored numerous articles and reports concerning the negative impact of zero tolerance school disciplinary policies.

Monique L. Dixon is Senior Attorney at the Advancement Project, where she assists community groups and lawyers throughout the country with legal, policy and communications strategies on a range of issues that include voting rights, education and community-police relations.

The Advancement Project can be reached at ap@advancementproject.org.

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