Action for “You Can’t Build Peace with a Piece” Movement

April 8, 2013

 Read the Youth of Color Statement on School Safety and Gun Violence.

During an "April Fools Week of Action" in April 2013, young people across the country talked to policymakers, school superintendents and Members of Congress. At issue: proposed polices to curb gun violence in schools—responses that these young people say would make some schools feel more like prisons than centers of learning.

The primary policy target was Barbara Boxer’s (D-CA) Save Our Schools bill that would allow governors to deploy National Guard troops at schools, and increases funding for metal detectors and surveillance cameras. State and local initiatives to put more police in schools, open school-focused police precincts and divert additional funding to surveillance are also on their roster of policies in need of improvement.

Find out what’s their National Week accomplished, and what's to come here.

The youth behind the emerging movement say their motto, “You Can’t Build Peace with a Piece” applies equally to students and adults—even to cops in schools.

The grassroots student response first gained momentum in California, where youth organizers from the LA-based Youth Justice Coalition began speaking out about the proposals and then connected to others voicing similar reactions across the country.

National organizations like Dignity in Schools and the Advancement Project stepped in to offer support to the youth-led movement, careful not to tread too heavily or take over.

Julio Marquez, 20, is one of the youth organizers behind the movement. When he was in middle school, he says, visits from the K-9 police patrol were frequent—and disruptive to learning.

High school wasn’t much better: in his public charter school, the private security guards carried loaded weapons. “Between their guns, their uniforms and the bars on the school, walking to the front office made you feel like you were in prison,” he told me.

Nearly half of all public schools have assigned police officers. While much of the mainstream debate has been around whether or not they are effective at curbing violence in schools—opponents point out that Columbine High School had an armed guard in 1999—the students behind this movement say we should not ignore the other consequences of increasing police presence in schools.

They’re right to worry: Data from the GAO and others indicate that the biggest impact of putting more police in schools is not a drop in violence but rather a dramatic rise in school-based arrests. A University of Tennessee study found that schools with School Resource Officers have nearly five times the rate of arrests for disorderly conduct as those without.

The majority of these arrests are for discretionary offenses or "defiance," not serious violence or threats. Students of color, LGBTQ youth, and students with disabilities are disproportionately likely to be arrested or ticketed.

“Guns, armed guards and police in our schools do not make schools safer," says LaTonya Hawkins, a parent and organizer with Gwinnett  SToPP, a parent coalition to dismantle the "school to prison pipeline" in Gwinnett County, GA. "A safe school is one where there are positive and constructive relationships between students, teachers and school staff."

Student Strategies for Safer Schools

Instead of funding more armed guards, the student coalition offers 11 specifics policy recommendations that they say will make schools safer and more conducive to learning, including: boosting funds for youth centers in areas that don’t have good afterschool options; hiring more guidance counselors and intervention workers to offer safe passage to and from schools and help resolve conflicts “in schools and on the streets”; and providing free metro passes for students to get from school to work and afterschool activities.

Topping the demands among young people I’ve talked to in Louisiana, Chicago, New York and LA: ending the "automatic response" policies that push students out of school through suspensions and expulsions for relatively minor infractions.

Citing documented instances, students behind the Statement note that "we've been handcuffed and humiliated in front of other students and staff for 'offenses' as small as being late to school; detained in police interrogation rooms at our school; expelled from school for carrying nail clippers, markers or baseball caps; and arrested—even in elementary school—for fights that used to be solved in the principal's office."

To that end, on April 2 and 3, youth in LA patroled the halls at the Board of Supervisors, City Hall and the state Capitol, handing out tickets and suspensions and expulsions to policymakers for things like chewing gum, improper dress code, and failure to carry ID—offenses that can lead to suspension and expulsion in some schools in LA and across the country.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the young people themselves: check out the joint Statement on School Safety and Gun Violence, approved by the coalition behind the Week of Action.

Caitlin Johnson is SparkAction's co-founder and managing editor, as well as a freelance writer in the New York City area. Read Caitlin's full bio here.




Caitlin Johnson