In the aftermath of the tragedy that was the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting and in the shadows of a nationally followed “manhunt” for former Los Angeles Police Department Officer Christopher Dorner, the Youth Justice Coalition (YJC) released a statement in front of Senator Barbara Boxer’s downtown LA office on “How to Prevent Gun Violence and Build Safe Schools.” YJC chose the location as a response to Boxer and other legislators anti-violence plans.
In December of last year, Senator Boxer introduced legislation, The Save Our Schools Act, that would make federal funds available for state governors to deploy National Guard troops at schools. She also introduced the School Safety Enhancement Act, which would increase funding for a federal grants program, to help fund school security measures like the installation of metal detectors and surveillance cameras.
YJC says their members are too familiar with with gun violence and its impacts. “Too many of us have been shot and shot at. We have buried our friends and family members. Nearly all of us have been to more funerals than graduations,” reads their statement. But they also say that attempts to build public safety with security systems, armed police and prisons have failed.
According to a recent article by Colorlines, last year 12,000 students, mostly Black, were arrested 13,870 times in Florida public schools alone. The majority of the arrests were for infractions like fist fights, dress-code violations, and talking back. Florida is not an aberration. More than 68 percent of youth go to U.S. schools with a police officer assigned to their campus. YJC points out that once upon a time misbehaving by young people meant a trip to the principal’s office. Now it means a trip to the police interrogation room or worse.
Much of this is due in part to “zero tolerance” laws that according to the YJC take away school based decision making and force schools to suspend, expel and arrest students to comply with the law and or receive federal or state funding. They offer eleven points, alternatives including ending the zero tolerance and rejecting efforts to expand police and military in schools as well as security gates, metal detectors, surveillance and increased use of handcuffs and police detention inside and around campuses. “Guns in anyone’s hands are not the solution,” reads the statement.
The YJC points out that for all the money that is being poured into enhancing police involvement and criminalizing youth of color is money being taken away from actual education and solutions to deal with conflicts inside schools. This is why among their demands is funding Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), specific strategies educators can use to reward positive student behavior, hold students accountable for their action in ways that keep them in school, causing self-reflection and growth, and improving relationships with school staff.
The YJC also questions why primarily urban schools with large populations of youth of color are disproportionately put on what they call a “school to jails” track, when more than 96 percent of school based shootings in the U.S. have been caused by white shooters in overwhelmingly white schools in white communities. Meanwhile, they feel youth of color who are the victims of gun violence receive little to no recognition or support. They point to how in the past year and a half, they have known 40 young people killed by community or police violence between South Central Los Angeles and Inglewood and have not seen a single journalist, elected official or mental health institution appearing to offer support to survivors or get a more complete picture of the victim. “Both the shooters and the victims are immediately discounted as ‘gangsters’ and ‘monsters.’”
Much of President Obama’s State of the Union speech earlier this week focused on gun violence, specifically in the context of Newtown and street violence of Chicago, which took the life of Hadiya Pendleton. But the reality of gun violence looks more like what the members of the Youth Justice Coalition spoke of in front of Barbara Boxer’s office and via their statement. They, a representation of youth of color across the United States, have dreams and plans of their own but often they find those dreams caught between gun violence and a government and education system that divests from those dreams in favor of investing in more police and prisons. What they and other young people of color demand is to be heard, because they have been talking for a long time. Pendleton’s parents may deserve a vote, but the young people of South Los Angeles deserve a voice.