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Know Your Rights
Source: Dignity in Schools
Subject: Education Justice
Type: Media Coverage

Youth Speak Out Against Zero Tolerance and Offer Positive Solutions

NYC youth brought the energy and turned it up a few notches in a packed room at Dignity in Schools Campaign-NY’s “Teach-In: Solutions for Positive School Discipline” on Thursday, Oct. 14. The event was held at New York University’s Law School.

Teach-in MC Adolfo Abreu, a youth leader with Sistas and Brothas United, started the event off right. There’s nothing like a good roll call to get things going. And of course it was the youth who turned out and filled the room to capacity. The volume of their voice was akin to what you’d hear at a Beyonce concert. No Beyonce, but plenty of excitement from the student attendees, who of everyone, understand the importance of schools being safe spaces where students are supported.

Yet, in many NYC public schools, youth are treated more like criminals than students eager to learn. There are over 5,200 School Safety Agents (SSAs) in NYC schools —a number larger than the police forces of some cities, including Washington, D.C. – and much larger than the number of guidance counselors in NYC schools—only about 3,200.

“When do we say enough is enough and when do we say over-policing and zero tolerance policies are out of control and have been for a while,” said Jaritza Geigel, a youth leader with Make the Road-New York.

During the opening panel, two students and one teacher spoke about their own experiences in metal detector schools and the need for alternative solutions to over-policing in school. Nilesh Viswasrao, a member of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), recalled countless times when he witnessed School Safety Agents (SSAs) harass students in his school and the irony of the punishment he received for being late to class one day—a suspension (watch a video testimony from Nilesh).

Jaritza Geigel, a recent graduate of Bushwick High School for Social Justice and youth leader at Make the Road-New York, described her high school journey, noting that her first school, while functioning with minimal police presence, failed to provide the support she needed and tried to push her out while facing family issues during her sophomore year. She transferred to Bushwick, where she was shocked by the number of SSAs and the metal detectors that greeted her each morning. Geigel said the atmosphere made her feel distrusted and like a criminal, particularly when she was required to take off clothing and shoes at the request of SSAs.

Josh Heisler, a member of Teachers Unite and teacher at the James Baldwin School, focused on ways his school sought to implement restorative practices. One such method includes the “Fairness Committee,” a restorative student group that will meet with students who may have broken the rules and after hearing all sides will recommend a suitable consequence.

Heisler remembered a story of one particular student who had cursed at the school’s secretary, an incident that in many schools would result in suspension, but that was instead brought to the fairness committee. After taking time to deliberate and speak with the student, the committee found she was having issues at home, which caused her to lash out. The student accepted responsibility for her actions, was given the chance to apologize, and was referred to the counseling she needed. Heisler believes that without the fairness committee, they may not have been able to provide her with the necessary help.

The audience listened attentively, asking thoughtful questions about the panelists’ experiences. Following the panel, after rousing youth chants and a spoken word piece by Jaritza Geigel, DSC-NY showed the video Breaking the Pipeline, a brief film by Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice and the Global Action Project, discussing how the School-to-Prison-Pipeline is perpetuated in NYC Public schools.

Mini breakout sessions followed the viewing and featured topics on “Federal Alternatives to Zero-Tolerance and ESEA,” “How Restorative Justice and PBIS Work in Districts Around the Country,” and “Changing Discipline Policies in New York City Schools.” Those who attended look forward to continuing the work of the DSC to ensure all children are treated with dignity and fairness in schools.

“We need to raise awareness,” said DRUM Youth Organizer Israt Jahan Issu. “Kids aren’t given the chance because of zero tolerance policies that push them out of school.”