Amy H-L: [00:00:15] I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.
Jon M: [00:00:18] And I’m Jon Moscow. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guests today are Nia Morgan and Anahi Ortiz Fierros. Nia is Interim Organizing Coordinator of the Urban Youth Collaborative, UYC, a youth- led coalition of New York based organizations fighting for educational justice and police-free schools. Nia is also a member of the Education Justice Team at the Center for Popular Democracy, which supports similar campaigns across the country. Nia earned a J.D. at Columbia Law School. Anahi is a youth leader with Make the Road Staten Island and the Urban Youth Collaborative. She graduated high school this year and will be attending Borough of Manhattan Community College in the fall. Welcome, Nia and Anahi.
Nia M: [00:00:59] Thank you for having us.
Anahi O F: [00:01:00] Thank you.
Amy H-L: [00:01:02] What is the Urban Youth Collaborative?
Nia M: [00:01:05] The Urban Youth Collaborative is a coalition of youth organizing groups across New York City. Our member organizations are Make the Road New York, both the Brooklyn and Staten Island chapters, as well as Sistas and Brothas United in the Bronx, Future of Tomorrow in Cypress Hills, which is in Brooklyn, and Rockaway Youth Task Force.
Jon M: [00:01:29] UYC recently put out a document that said while student arrests in New York City schools have decreased, arrests, summonses and juvenile reports still overwhelmingly target Black and Latinx students. Will you talk about what you found?
Nia M: [00:01:44] Yes. So we’ve looked at the data that’s come out over the past four years. That’s the last, that was when we were able to win more detailed data reporting coming out of the NYPD. And it shows that, as you said, arrests and court summons have decreased, but we can also see that the racial disparities have not moved. Over 90% of all arrests, court summons, and juvenile reports, which is a more informal way of tracking youth interactions with police, those have consistently had over 90% Black and Latinx students each school year. And even with, there’s some minor changes in percentages, but the vast and consistent majority of those are Black students, but overall, it’s 90% Black and Latinx students.
Amy H-L: [00:02:39] UYC has shifted its focus over the past few years from trying to improve the interactions between school safety officers, or SSOs, and students to demanding the elimination of all police from schools. Why did it make the shift?
Nia M: [00:02:56] We have always taken our lead from from our youth members and our end goal has always been police-free schools. We know that police don’t make schools safe. In fact, they create a really traumatizing environment. They don’t reduce violent instances, they don’t demonstrably make schools any safer, but they do cause significant harm to students. So our end goal was always police-free schools. We’ve changed our demands now because of the power of the moment and what has become possible in the past two months or so, and a willingness of more folks to really listen to youth and those directly impacted by policing and to help folks imagine what school safety and what safety in general looks like without police.
Jon M: [00:03:48] Anahi, Nia was just talking about that the police, you know, don’t make schools safer and that it’s a traumatizing experience for a lot of students. Do you want to talk about any of your experiences or those of friends, either with police or school safety officers within schools, or perhaps on the outside, that impact on how you see police?
Anahi O F: [00:04:12] Yes, definitely. Specifically, I want to talk about the policing in schools. It has had honestly, a negative effect on the students instead of the positive effects on which are, they’re like supposedly trying to push. I’ve seen that police in schools really target like the non-English speakers, you know, and the Latinx community and the Black girl students. And every time I would go into school and there would be a non-English speaker student, they would, they would act very aggressive towards them. They would yell at them and constantly repeat their question, even though they knew that that student didn’t speak English. And it was, it was very frustrating because I would have to go and translate for some of these or they would just simply get in trouble just because they couldn’t answer their questions. And honestly, it’s just, it’s very unfair to see that. And there’s not many like social workers or therapists to like help out the students. And the language barrier is also like really big. It’s like really big wall between them also the way they have treated the Latinx community. Like I’ve seen parents come in and instead of them being, you know, respectful or anything like that, they instantly just, it’s like, interrogation to them. They ask for ID or whatever, and they’re like, Why are you here, in such an aggressive manner? And when teachers come up and say, Hey, we know this family member, they’re more, you know, they add more respect. And it’s just, uh, it’s just so frustrating to see that, that they just have no respect towards us.
Jon M: [00:06:14] Speaking of, you mentioned when teachers come up, what kind of interaction do you see between say principals and the school safety officers or other cops or teachers or other school personnel? I mean, is there a sense that they have the final say or is it that the policing process is sort of totally separated from whatever else is hopefully going on in the school?
Anahi O F: [00:06:45] I can say it is very separated. Teachers are always a little more lenient towards the students. They will always talk to them first. But whenever it’s a police in the school, they will always act on, you know, like defense mechanism in a way it’s always hands on first. And with teachers it’s always [inaudible] the students. Or if the principal comes, they’re always like trying to calm the student down and just try to understand them. So it’s, it’s very different between them and especially the guidance counselors too. Um, they can be very divided. There are some guidance counselors that do help and there the guidance counselors that kind of just follow the lead, I’m sorry, the lead with policing. So it’s very, it’s very, very different.
Jon M: [00:07:40] Do either of you expect to see any changes in what you’ve been describing as a result of last month’s budget agreement in New York City that included a promised shift of school safety officers from the NYPD, from the police department, to the Department of Education?
Anahi O F: [00:08:00] I feel like not here since what was heard of, I think like last week, we weren’t really too happy about it. It was really disappointing. Hopefully we’re trying to push for a change and we’re not going to stop even if, you know, they say otherwise, but I don’t really know. It’s very unclear right now because of what was said like last week.
Amy H-L: [00:08:31] So what specifically are you looking for in terms of change?
Anahi O F: [00:08:38] Well, I would definitely definitely love and would hope for if the police was just, you know, taken out of schools and instead they could really enforce youth programs, social workers, therapists, someone that a student can talk to instead of violence.
Nia M: [00:09:01] Yeah. As Anahi said, we’re really not expecting a change. There’s been more money put into school safety, agents, school policing, coming from this budget. There was no actual divestment because it’s like that there was no money taken away, first of all. But there also wasn’t a re investment of that money into supportive programs students really need. We know that the impacts of COVID-19 affect more than just schools reopening and trying to figure out the logistics, but have had a serious psychological and educational effect on students. And what they need now are more folks to talk to them and more folks there to listen and support them rather than respond to any conflict punitively, which is what police do.
Amy H-L: [00:09:55] What do you see across the country in terms of efforts to create police free schools?
Nia M: [00:10:02] There has been definite upswell in movements. There, there are some that have been going for years as well to push police out of schools. A lot of youth work organizations across the country have been pushing for this for a long time. Black Organizing Project in Oakland comes immediately to mind, but also Leaders Igniting Transformation in Milwaukee, and we’ve seen a lot of strides in the past two months or so. So cities such as Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Denver, Portland , and Rochester, New York. They’ve been able to get cops out of their schools. They’ve ended contracts with policing there’s, but there’s still a lot more work to be done. Like LA hasn’t really pushed anywhere near far enough. Seattle just put their contract on hold for a year.
And in Salem, Oregon, we saw a lot of pushback from the local school board. In particular, in the meeting where they talked about police free schools, one of the school board members showed up in blackface, which was obviously not very encouraging to the student group there, Latinos Unidos Siempre and they are going to keep fighting and pushing just like we are in New York City for police-free schools.
Amy H-L: [00:11:19] Could you eplain a little more specifically what happened at the board meeting?
Nia M: [00:11:23] Yes, so at the board meeting, one of the board members, it was a Zoom meeting, and he was wearing a mask of a well known basketball player who was Black over his face, the entire board meeting. And it was treated as a joke and he still has not resigned.
Amy H-L: [00:11:48] What was his point?
Nia M: [00:11:51] That is a great question. I do not know if there was a point beyond general opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement and, uh, obvious disrespect and disregard for students of color pushing for police-free schools.
Jon M: [00:12:09] And I understand that the president of that school board is married to somebody who is an avowed member of a far right militant militia type group. So it sounds as if the school board is not particularly open to Black Lives Matter.
Nia M: [00:12:28] No, there’s definite, there’s a definite need right now for leadership to really listen to youth voices and to move beyond just what, what they see. as, with how they view safety and how youth are impacted and actually like hearing what students need instead of choosing to police them. Anahi, you can speak to that obviously more than I can, as someone who just graduated in high school.
Jon M: [00:13:01] You’ve mentioned before we go on, because I obviously want to hear more of that from Anahi, but you’ve mentioned in the past that Toronto is doing a lot better than a lot of other big cities. Do you have any details on that or how they’re approaching things?
Nia M: [00:13:16] I have not spoken at length with the folks in Toronto, but as I understand it, speaking to other activists in these spaces, is that they view, speaking of police in schools, as a complete non-starter. They don’t want that environment. That’s not how they view safety. That’s not how they envision a healthy, ethical environment for schools and students. So they won’t even talk about it.
Jon M: [00:13:44] UYC supports the Solutions Not Suspensions Act in the New York State legislature. Could either of you describe what the Act provides and where it stands?
Anahi O F: [00:13:58] Sure, I’ll speak about it. Maybe it’s a little bit unclear in how I explain it, but I definitely do know that they’re trying to minimize the suspensions from, I think, it was a whole year to 20 days. I believe, if I’m not wrong. And they’re trying to get rid of suspensions from kindergarten. They’re also trying to reinforce different programs instead of suspending students and for like minor infractions, they’re trying to ban suspension from that.
Nia M: [00:14:32] Yeah. Just to add on a little bit. It’s to end the use of suspensions for K through three. And as, Anahi, you mentioned really like limiting from 180 days to 20 days as the usual maximum length of suspensions.
Amy H-L: [00:14:50] The teachers union in New York state is opposing this bill, arguing that it’s an unfunded mandate and the state should instead provide $3 million in grants to support alternative approaches to student discipline.
Do you have a comment on that?
Nia M: [00:15:07] Yes. I believe that one, it’s not, it’s not a program that’s mandating anything beyond the end of use suspensions, the limiting of 20 days, but there’s no implementation program required as far as I understand. What the teachers union says and what is actually needed, it’s not getting fully to the root of the problem. Like true investment in restorative justice programs and programs that support youth take more than $3 million.
In this budget moment,however, we’ve seen a massive shortfall in funding coming from the state that actually prevented CARES Act funding to go directly to local school districts, because that’s what the state used to fill in the backlog of budget. So we know that $3 million is not going to do nearly enough. That said, students more than ever need to be able to stay in classes. They need to be able to stay engaged. They’ve been isolated in more ways than one, educationally, socially. And now is not the time to push students out of classes, especially for minor infractions.
Jon M: [00:16:24] Yeah, following up on that. I mean, teachers often want to remove students who are engaging in disruptive behavior from the class, you know, traditionally by sending them to the principal’s office, whereas restorative practices, you know, as you were just saying, well, for getting to the roots of problems, you know, preferably within the classroom, you know. What would be needed in terms of professional development and changes of structures in schools to make this kind of shift on a widespread basis. And have you seen a commitment from, in specific, from the New York City Department of Ed to provide any of this kind of professional development or organizational support for this kind of culture change in schools?
Nia M: [00:17:10] Yes. So with things that need to change, there needs to be, I think, a shift on a fundamental level to how teachers approach discipline issues. They shouldn’t be pushed out of the classroom for the minor infractions, tardiness, dress code violations, and subordination. There needs to be a shift from pushing them out to making sure that they understand why certain discipline issues are important. Pushing students out doesn’t teach them anything. Pushing students out doesn’t add to their development or support them. There has been a commitment in New York City to do so, to expand restorative justice practices citywide to all middle schools and high schools, to expand social emotional learning to the elementary schools. That was as of June of 2019. However, looking at the current budget, it looks as if professional development in these areas have been completely defunded. We don’t know where the funding went for restorative practices that the three year timeline for implementation, which already was, let’s say, an overly ambitious goal for truly implementing restorative practices, has been completely thrown out the window. We don’t know when that could be possibly restored. And there’s just no support in this budget for those deep cultural changes that would create the transformation necessary for these punitive practices to be phased out.
Amy H-L: [00:18:51] How do we make sure everyone in the school is safe?
Anahi O F: [00:18:54] Well, like I said before, we should take like, mental precautions, I guess that’s the best way I can explain it. Like have people that are trained, as we said before, like social workers, therapists, people that can actually sit down and they know tactics on how to calm the student down and, you know, have their own like ways to help out students and make sure that also the teachers are on [inaudible] and they know some tactics, you know, to just talk to the student, basically.
Nia M: [00:19:35] Yeah. What I also think Anahi’s getting to is the need to deescalate situations, to not respond with the harshest punishment immediately, to avoid those kinds of zero tolerance atmospheres and really build community and make sure that those who are responding do so in a culturally appropriate manner, do so in a way that reaffirms the humanity of students.
Amy H-L: [00:20:05] What do the youth in UYC did say about metal detectors in the schools?
Anahi O F: [00:20:13] Well, they, we have definitely agreed on the fact that it’s just essentially criminalizing us, you know, it just feels like you’re stepping into a prison. And they’re just instantly saying, hey, like you guys are most definitely criminals. You guys most definitely are planning something in your head. And it just, just makes us feel as if the students are just being targeted to like, basically, put the schools on like it’s a prison type setting, you know, we just go in, get checked and get out, you know?
Nia M: [00:20:54] Yeah, to that, one of the, one of our youth members in Rockaway has told me a story of how arbitrary these metal detectors really are. So she, in her backpack was carrying a fork, because one does when they like want to eat lunch or anything like that. And as a lot of people do, she forgot it was in her backpack. It was just in her backpack for a while. She went through the same school full door building, where they had metal detectors, for a few days. There was no issue. She went in a different entrance and then they caught the fork and they said that she either had to throw it away or leave the school building. She would have been prevented from attending class because of the fork in a way that is truly just ridiculous. Not because we don’t understand the supposed function of these not detectors, but in having impact, like on students, the arbitrariness of the metal detectors themselves also, there’s what, there’s no conclusive evidence that now detectors make students safer. So that particular student’s experience is really gets to, I think the heart of just how metal attackers don’t need to be in schools.
Jon M: [00:22:19] So, are there things either of, you would like to add to things that you’ve already talked
Anahi O F: [00:22:27] about?
Yeah. About the metal detectors with Nia. There have been a lot of cases where it could be a belt or literally like something from a purse and they would make such a big deal out of it, it was crazy. I remember this one time they stopped me. I don’t know what I had in my bag. I think it was some art supplies that I had and I was, you know, making my way to class. And they stopped me because the machine, whatever, did its thing. And that ended up me being late to class. And my teacher was just like, teachers were just so mad about the fact that they, that we had to go through these metal detectors because of the fact that we were just losing like time in class, you know, and it was really frustrating and irritating. Beause we would try to explain to them and they would just, you know, they’d be like, okay, but don’t be late. And we’d be like, okay. But like we just, can’t like, there’s no way to stop that.
Jon M: [00:23:31] Nia, is there anything you’d like to add?
Nia M: [00:23:33] Yeah. I always just want to, and again, on what youth have told me and how their experience has really, really just drive, like, not only our demands, but also why we keep at this fight. We’ve had meetings with elected officials, with Department of Education staff members, and what has come out of those conversations, like what the youth have said, what they’ve said in meetings over even the past year that I’ve been with UYC has shown that the impacts of police in school on them directly is so deep and so long lasting. And the continual investment in school police, like attempting to say that things are going to change with the transfer, when we know that attempting to retrain police officers in the general context, it just doesn’t work to change behavior. It’s something that is extremely frustrating and disheartening, and honestly, and enraging. Like students have been handcuffed in front of peers and walked down the hall. They’ve been harassed by police officers as they go in and out of buildings. They’ve lived through years of repeated trauma in schools that have been sanctioned and praised. Like those jobs have been protected above all others, really. And they have siblings that are still in school, even if, as they graduate, as they’ve been fighting, they, they see that not much has actually changed in how they experienced their schools and how they interact with police. And when they leave school, they know that their younger siblings are going to do that, go through the exact same thing that they are. We are so beyond the time for change. We are so beyond, I think, point of needing to understand that youth experiences have to come first and youth needs to come first in education. And that includes a lot of things.
Jon M: [00:25:42] That’s very powerful. Thank you, Nia Morgan and Anahi Ortiz Fierra of Urban Youth Collaborative, Make the Road Staten Island and Center for Popular Democacy.
Nia M: [00:25:56] Thank you.
Amy H-L: [00:25:59] And thank you, listeners. If you liked this episode, please consider subscribing and giving us a rating or review. It helps other people to find the show. Check out our website, ethicalschools.org, for more episodes and articles and subscribe to our emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs with a focus on ethics for schools and youth programs in the New York City area. Contact us at hosts@ ethicalschools.org. We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethical school s. Our editor social media manager is Amanda Denton. Until next week.