—Ben Kirshner and Ricardo Martinez
The Black Lives Matter movement has galvanized people throughout the US to speak up about systemic racism and the devastating impact of mass incarceration on communities of color. Civil disobedience and mass protest since Ferguson have generated needed media attention to the persistence of American racism. What the national media often overlooks, however, has been the last decade of tireless organizing by students, parents, and community organizers to dismantle the school-to-jail track inside K-12 schools.
According to the Advancement Project, the school-to-jail track refers to a system in which “out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests are increasingly used to deal with student misbehavior, especially for minor incidents, and huge numbers of children and youth are pushed out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.” This system became the new normal in the mid-1990s as zero tolerance school policies spread throughout the United States. The impact landed disproportionately on youth of color, mostly African American and Latino. A report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, for example, found that African American youth were six times and Latino youth three times more likely than White youth to be incarcerated for the same offenses.
Padres & Jóvenes Unidos (PJU), a multigenerational and multiracial community organizing group based in the southwest side of Denver, Colorado, became involved in this issue when they saw their membership facing increased criminalization in schools. Since launching its End the School-to-Jail Track campaign in 2005, PJU has seen several of its goals met, including revisions to the Denver Public Schools disciplinary code, passage of a Colorado state law about school safety, and new agreements between police and school districts reducing police presence. New research carried out by PJU is a resource to hold state policymakers accountable for proper implementation. Young people of color have worked on the front lines of this campaign in various capacities—tackling problem analysis, formulating strategy, recruiting members, collecting data, speaking at public events, and communicating with media. The intergenerational structure of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos creates a space where middle and high school students often work side-by-side with young adults and veteran organizers to prepare for meetings and clarify strategy.
PJU’s impact is not limited to its policy achievements, but also in what it means for civic renewal and grassroots democracy. In a social and political context where the participation of regular people—not specialists or lobbyists—in public policy-making is rare, and youth participation is even rarer, the End the School-to-Jail Track campaign offers a bright exception. Students’ experience of engaging in high-stakes encounters with policy makers, including praising them when called for and voicing criticism when necessary, contributes to a culture shift, even if incremental, in which young people are taken seriously in the public square.
2015 has been a year of increased conversation about racial discrimination in policing and the courts. In a development that would not have been possible five years ago, presidential candidates from both major parties are calling for an end to mass incarceration. As the US tries to make collective progress on this issue, it will be important to also address how schools educate and discipline youth. This means not just doing away with racist practices but creating new systems to take their place, such as restorative justice and other forms of discipline that foster healthy relationships and a sense of community in schools. This slow and steady work of institution-building is most likely to have lasting effects if led by groups such as PJU, which are made up of students and parents from the communities that experience the impact of racial profiling in their everyday lives.
Ben Kirshner is Associate Professor of Education at the University of Colorado Boulder and author of Youth Activism in an Era of Education Inequality (NYU Press, 2015).
Ricardo Martinez is Co-Executive Director of Padres & Jóvenes Unidos.