Local activists, policymakers and researchers spoke to a Mills audience on how to end the school to prison pipeline that disproportionately affects Black girls.
Six panelists, Connie Wun, Lilly Chen, Camisha Fatimah Gentry, Leana Hudson, Rocheall Pierre and Ophelia Williams, spoke at the Feb. 23 Black history month event, explaining what the entry points to the pipeline are, the issue with law enforcement being present in schools and solutions to the ongoing issue.
Emcee Alexis Joshua described the school to prison pipeline, quoting author and social justice scholar Monique Morris as “the policies, practices, and conditions that facilitate both the criminalization of educational environments and the processes by which this criminalization results in the incarceration of youth and young adults.”
Chinyere Oparah, associate provost and ethnic studies co-department head, introduced the discussion on what the school to prison pipeline means for Black girls, while also recognizing gender fluidity and the boys of color that also experience this.
“Young Black girls are being channeled out of the schools and into the jails,” Oparah said. “Think about education as a form of empowerment and a form of transformation and not as a place that is impairing young people to be disciplined and put in an environment where a school and prison look very similar.”
Chen, a statewide education rights attorney and public counsel, spoke to the importance of giving value to a student to prevent the feeling of worthlessness that is constantly reinforced in zero tolerance policies.
“In Oakland Unified, Black girls are nine times as likely as white girls to be suspended in the school year of 2013-14, and in 2014-15, 15 times as likely; one in-school suspension makes them twice as likely to drop out and four times as likely to go to prison,” Chen said.” It’s your schools, your teachers, your administration, telling you we don’t really care about you, we want you to leave, you’re disrupting this community for the rest of us.”
The conversation needs to be centered on Black girls, explained Wun, who is the director of community driven research of data center and research justice at the intersection at Mills.
“Lack of focus on Black girls’ experiences in ways we support them in thriving, not just access to education,” Wun said. “The girls are saying they have experience with sexual violence, domestic violence, poverty, racism from teachers, sex work, discrimination from teachers and administration. Polices and practices don’t address that.”
Law enforcement being present in schools is an issue, especially due to the recent movements against police brutality on people of color. Williams, executive director at the Young Women’s Freedom Center, explains why police being in schools is making the school to prison pipeline worse.
“We don’t need police in our school; our school is where are young people, who are children, come to learn. It should be an environment for learning not for creating an infrastructure to guarantee our children land in a cage,” Williams said.
Gentry, who works to implement restorative justice for Oakland youth, advocated for focusing on the needs of the victims and offenders as a solution to this problem, instead of zero tolerance punishment as a solution.
Black women and girls need to be in the conversation when the laws are being made, Williams and Rocheall Pierre, the director of Wellness at the Young Women’s Freedom Center, explained.
“The Black girl has been at the receiving end with all things wrong in our society, therefore the Black girl’s position is to engage around these solutions,” Williams said. “We cannot find solutions from using these old frames.”