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Presenter Spotlight… on Angela Jones of the NYCLU September 22, 2010

Posted by RISE: Social Work to End Oppression in Uncategorized.
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RISE caught up with Angela Jones, coordinator of the School to Prison Pipeline for the NYCLU, who will be presenting “School to Prison Pipeline/ Juvenile Justice 101″ at the RISE Conference in October. Her work focuses on improving school safety policies and putting an end to the path that leads students away from schools and toward the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Read on to find out more about Angela’s work and for a sneak-peek into the conference!

The NYCLU works very closely with students and youth impacted by the justice system. How has organizing with youth impacted you as an organizer and activist?

As an organizer I think it’s important to understand that those who are directly affected by the issues are the ones who will inform us about the problems, the solutions, and the steps we need to take to get from one to the other. In the beginning, we didn’t understand the extent of the problem around police in schools, not until youth began telling us what their day-to-day experiences were. We learn from them. It’s really young people who have been leading the movement to end over-policing in schools. It’s being led by youth from organizations like DRUM-Desis Rising Up and Moving, Make the Road New York, Future of Tomorrow, Youth on the Move, Brothers and Sisters United, and the Urban Youth Collaborative.

Working with young people around social justice issues is the single most rewarding experience for me. I’ve worked with youth in other areas who might be labeled by some as “at-risk”. To me, these youth hold the answers to better schools and better communities. Young mothers, court-involved youth, LGBTSTGNC youth, youth with special needs, youth from low-income families, etc. can educate us about the stigmas they face and their constant struggle to be treated with dignity by the adults in their lives.

As an activist, the stories young people tell me get my blood boiled. Their struggles light a fire under my feet and propel me toward action. When young people tell me that they were taken away by truancy officers for being ten minutes late to class, when they tell me that they were suspended for wearing a hat in school, when young people tell me that they were arrested for writing on their desk, I realize that things aren’t as simple as we think. The issue isn’t about “bad kids doing bad things”. These punishments do not fit the crimes. And the punishments themselves do nothing to address the underlying problems. Youth challenge me to look deeper into the social fabric and find the holes that they are in danger of slipping through.

You work with the NYCLU organizing action in support of the Student Safety Act. What is the Student Safety Act?

The Student Safety Act is a reporting bill. It would require the NYPD and the DOE to report regularly on school-based arrests and student suspensions. The number of students arrested everyday is recorded but it isn’t released to the public. It’s the City’s best kept secret. The bill will also make known the type of students who are being arrested and suspended. What we hear from teachers, parents, youth advocates, and youth themselves is that students of color from low-income communities are more likely to be suspended or arrested in schools. And students with special needs are especially vulnerable. The schools that have the most police personnel, surveillance equipment, and metal detectors serve mostly students of color from low-income families. That makes these students more vulnerable to policing and the justice system.

The Student Safety Act will give us the data we need to address the disproportionate impact that over-policing has on students. From there, we can begin to create more positive alternatives.

What is the importance of the Student Safety Act to social workers?

The data that would be released once the Student Safety Act passes, is data that social workers will be able to access in order to better serve the youth who they work with. The information will be school-specific, so that social workers who are assigned to a school will be able address the needs of the student body based on their school’s data. If there is an increase in suspensions among students with special needs, for instance, social workers will be able to identify that and work with teachers and administrators to address the issue.

How can social workers help to dismantle the school to prison pipeline?

We need social workers to be allies in the struggle to create more youth-positive policies in schools, in communities, and in the juvenile justice system. Because social workers are looked to as experts in the area of youth needs and effective ways of meeting those needs, it’s important for them to be outspoken about the ill effects of over-policing on the school environment. It would help our campaign tremendously if social workers came together as a group and supported the Student Safety Act. Your expertise is vital to the movement.

In addition to activism, we also need social workers for their forward-thinking vision. We’ve come to know what the problems are. What we need now is to begin to shape solutions. It’s not fair for us to ask student to leave their lives at home when they come to school. Social workers understand the social, emotional, and economic hardships that students face; elements that might effect their ability to function in school. Therefore, it’s important to begin brainstorming ways of addressing these matters before they become cause for misbehavior in the classroom.

For instance, some schools have after school programs so that students have somewhere to go and something positive to do after school hours. Some schools have breakfast programs so that students receive the nutrition need to start the day well. Some schools have child care facilities for young mothers so that they can continue their education while raising their child. Some schools have conflict resolution and peer mediation programs for students who get into minor disagreements. These programs not only get to the root of the conflict, they also reinforce a more positive and nurturing school environment. It’s often social workers who identify the need for these programs and advocate for their implementation. That kind of support is vital to student success.

What do you expect RISE participants will walk away with after attending your session?

After the session, I hope participants will understand the systemic problem of over-policing; that there are educational policies and practices that push struggling students out of schools and into the juvenile justice system. I also hope that the session will encourage participants to speak out about the problems students face in schools. And finally, I hope that our campaign to end over-policing can offer participants a vehicle to create positive changes.

If you have any questions or would like to learn more about the School to Prison Pipeline, and how you can get involved, please contact Angela at ajones@nyclu.org.

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