On August 17, the American Youth Policy Forum hosted our second session of the Youth Summit, a series of discussions focused on the needs of young people. As the pandemic continues, students are facing newer and more complex obstacles to success. AYPF’s Youth Summit allows young people to connect with one another to discuss solutions to problems plaguing them and their communities.
During the second session, speakers discussed the drivers, impact of, and possible solutions to the school-to-prison pipeline. Each panel of the Youth Summit is followed by breakout groups in which youth attendees can engage with one another, to discuss their communities’ needs and how to address them.
- Participants first heard from U.S. Senator Cory Booker in a video made especially for the Summit’s youth participants. As a policymaker, he addressed young people on their power to create change and how much youth voice matters.
- West Resendes is a lawyer working for the ACLU fighting for disability rights in schools. He started off the conversation by providing a definition of the school-to-prison pipeline: “Policies and practices that punish, isolate, marginalize, and deny young people who are Black, Brown, Latinx, indigenous, disabled, immigrants, LGBTQIA+, and young people who are living at the intersections of those identities, from getting access to nurturing and supportive learning environments and instead funnels them into the criminal legal system.”
He highlighted that students with disabilities are disproportionately impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline as their behaviors are often misinterpreted by adults as defiant and subsequently met by punitive responses, though many of these young people cannot control their behaviors. He also noted that students of color with disabilities are more likely to be impacted by the pipeline as both identifying groups are disproportionately affected by school discipline.
He advocated for more supports when those behaviors occur because teachers and law enforcement don’t have the training that they need to be able to recognize the root causes of those behaviors. He offered solutions to dismantling the pipeline, such as stopping the flow of federal funding to law enforcement in schools and instead using those funds to invest in alternatives such as social workers, counselors, restorative practitioners, and violence interrupters to help student navigate through conflict and to help them create more psychological and emotional independence.
- Kenvin Lacayo is a Dean of seventh-grade students in Washington, DC and an AYPF Youth Policy Consultant. He noted that Black and Brown students are disproportionately impacted by the school to prison pipeline due to over-policing and over-surveillance. “If I’m constantly looking for something I’m going to find something. My students see the police the whole way to school at every single metro station, bus stop, corner store, gas station so they’re running into them consistently. It sort of makes [the students] feel as though [the police] are expecting them to do something and it doesn’t make them feel comfortable.”
In his experience as a middle school Dean of Students, he has also noticed the adultification of young Black and Brown children, who are displaying normal youth behaviors but are often being punished much more harshly than their peers because “they should have known better.”
His experience as a young person in an academic administrative role has strengthened his support for forms of well-paid and supported peer-to-peer mentoring in schools. To support students, Kenvin stated that there needs to be a coalition of people who understand what kids are going through and have the ability to respond to their specific needs. As such, Kenvin noted that credible messengers are important resources to include in educational institutions.
- Kristin Henning is the Director of Georgetown University’s Juvenile Justice Clinic, where she defends young people in courts on criminal charges. She is also the author of The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth and centers her work around dismantling the oppressive structure of the juvenile justice system.
When asked what the school-to-prison pipeline looks like in practice, she said “It looks like the criminalization of normal adolescent behaviors…How many Black and Brown children have been suspected of a crime or have even been shot walking down the street, like Trayvon Martin, while wearing a hoodie?”
She has noticed in her work with young people that criminalization often makes them feel angry, scared, frustrated, and despondent. She stated, “Criminalization has an extraordinary impact on young people’s self-perception and on their perception of the legitimacy and fairness of law enforcement as institution.” She highlighted that research has documented the profound trauma that policing and heavy surveillance imposes on young people as they reported increase rates of anxiety and depression. She named that Black and Brown students are more likely to feel unsafe around police officers due to negative interactions their community and other communities around the nation have had with police. She highlighted that students who have had or observed negative interactions with the police can question who they are, what they can become, and where they fit into society when they see a disproportionate number of Black and Brown kids being criminalized.
- Chaz Carmon is the President of Ice the Beef, an anti-violence community organization based in Connecticut, dedicated to promoting a better quality of life among youth through programs, activities, and resources for young people.
He shared that the historical and current mistreatment of Black and Brown people by police have made many communities no longer view police as synonymous with “safety” or “help”. He affirmed that community policing, in which law enforcement develops genuine relationships with community member and students, can help dismantle the pipeline, as well as young people themselves becoming police officers in their own communities in the future.
He asserted that just because children make behavioral mistakes doesn’t mean that they are bad people or that they deserve consistent punishment. He affirmed that kids should be allowed to be kids, and adults should be there for students and perceive them as people who can grow up and change, not as entities adhered to a certain behavioral pattern.
He offered credible messenger mentoring programs—that help build relationships with students, get to know them, their needs and interests, as well as connect them to resources—as a solution to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. He spoke about the positive impact his credible messenger program has had on students, which he attributes to students knowing that someone is there for them, no matter what they need. The mentors can say to the students, “I’ve been through it. I understand what you’re going through because I’ve been through it.”
The breakout rooms—following the panel discussion for the second session—focused on how young people define the school-to-prison pipeline, the discussion points that most deeply resonated with them as young people, and possible solutions for dismantling the pipeline.
- Participants defined the pipeline as the forcible interaction between students and the justice system through experiences within educational institutions. Participants noted that the school to prison pipeline is also exacerbated by the adultification of young people in educational institutions. Young girls, especially Black girls, are perceived to be much older than they are and when they don’t behave as such, they are punished as adults would be. Participants expressed that students are young people, and their behavior should not be expected to be that of adults, nor should it be met with responses from law enforcement as it can be an entry-point to the legal system and start a cycle of criminalization, with long-term effects on their lives.
- Participants noted that students of color are far more likely to be stereotyped and perceived as threats by adults and suffer more frequent interactions with law enforcement than white students. They also highlighted that discipline disparities are much wider for students with disabilities, as adults can often misinterpret their behaviors as aggressive or disrespectful. Then they spotlighted solutions to minimizing disparities as they pertain to the pipeline, such as the incorporation of violence interrupters, credible messengers, or mentorship programs, as well as the use of creative arts and sports to help students express themselves and focus on positive goals.
- Other solutions these young people agreed with included: diversifying the teacher workforce, implementing restorative justice practices in schools, removing police and SROs from schools, and further supporting guidance counselors in K-12 schools.
Youth Summit Continues—Will You Join Us?
Thank you to everyone who participated in our second session of the Youth Summit! To learn more about the Summit—including the final session on August 31—visit our event webpage and register!