If you’re an adult who has been out of grade school for in excess of a decade, then you probably have no clue how much has been done this century to convert learning institutions into prisons. That goes double for people unfamiliar with communities of color, where students are disproportionately slapped with extreme penalties for small infractions. Next time you hear an old-timer talking about nuns swinging rulers, tell them that in America in 2014, kids are often beaten, tazed, and jailed for such minor offenses as insubordination.
And so with the state of Boston Public Schools being way less than adequate, and with students being policed on top of poor funding and the unfortunate hand they are already dealt, hundreds of young people plan to speak out this week in solidarity with youths across the country. Specifically, the National Week of Action Against School Pushout – an effort organized by the Los Angeles and New York-based Dignity in Schools coalition – will turn up in the Hub on Thursday afternoon at the Dudley Square, Ashmont, and Forest Hills T stations, with a follow-up group rally at Boston Police Department headquarters.
“The whole thing is about trying to end this idea of what we call the ‘school to prison pipeline,” says Najma Nazy’at, the director and lead organizer of the nonprofit Boston Youth Organizing Project (BYOP), which is the local force behind the protest. Nazy’at says so-called “zero tolerance” behavior policies are vestiges of former President George W. Bush’s notoriously punitive train wreck of an education act, No Child Left Behind, and reflects a tough-on-crime mentality left over from the Crack Era. She adds: “These young people are suspended for everything from chewing gum to talking back to teachers. We can start ending suspensions around the country just by showing the absurdity. A school is not a jail. It should be a loving place.”
The cruel and counterintuitive reality of modern school punishment is evident in any number of cases, statistical and anecdotal. In Texas, for example, a 2011 study of a million middle schoolers showed that only 3 percent of suspensions were for serious criminal offenses. Around here, while Boston Public Schools have improved in this regard in recent years, research by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity show how this phenomenon has plagued the commonwealth …
In Massachusetts, more than 190,000 school days were lost to out-of-school suspensions and expulsions during the 2009-2010 school year … That’s about one school day for every five Bay State students or just over 10 percent of the 172 million school days logged annually by the state’s 955,563 elementary and secondary pupils.
Boston was more likely than other school systems to permanently expel students, primarily for violent drug or criminal activity, while Worcester students lost more than 5,000 days of class time more than any other school district in the state due to out-of-school suspensions.
Data shows that minority students are being expelled or suspended at disproportionately higher rates than their white counterparts. According to that 2006 federal data, the most current available figures show that black males are being expelled at six times that of white male students and at twice the rate of white male suspensions.
“When young people leave school, a lot of them don’t come back,” Nazy’at says. “We call it ‘pushout’ – we don’t call it ‘dropout.’ When schools don’t have resources, and students are over-tested, and then you’re being punished and criminalized and can go to jail, it’s a ‘pushout’ crisis. There are over 3 million young people in this country who have been pushed out.”
In line with organizing done in response to the controversial killings of young people of color like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin, Nazy’at says Thursday’s actions will address a range of interwoven issues from police brutality to school policy. It’s not just for show; past demonstrations have led to BPS brass re-thinking punitive models, and to Boston schools reserving out-of-school suspensions for rare cases. That’s a good start; moving forward, though, Nazy’at hopes young Bostonians will help foster more “’restorative justice’ alternatives” that “build healthy school communities.” Just imagine students being made to do community service instead of being banished from campus.
“It shouldn’t be about punishing them,” Nazy’at says. “These young people aren’t criminals. They’re part of the community. People forget that.”
A Queens, NY native who came to New England in 2004 to earn his MA in journalism at Boston University, Chris Faraone is the editor and co-publisher of DigBoston and a co-founder of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. He has published several books including 99 Nights with the 99 Percent, and has written liner notes for hip-hop gods including Cypress Hill, Pete Rock, Nas, and various members of the Wu-Tang Clan.