In this game of bingo, it was unclear whether winning was a good thing: Five lined-up X’s meant students could say they’d had a lot of run-ins with police at school, knew someone who had been suspended or expelled, and were familiar with zero-tolerance discipline policies.
“I was close to bingo twice,” said Melanie Andrade, 21, of Davenport, Fla., but she couldn’t make a straight line. She was unable to fill two blank squares that represented having $250 to pay a citation for being tardy to school and having a school with a college counselor.
This inventory of experiences was one of many exercises used to coax about 150 teenagers and young adults from around the country meeting here into action against school discipline policies that some civil rights, education, and health groups say do far more harm than good and disproportionately affect students who are black, Latino, or have disabilities.
They were gathered at a Denver school during the last weekend in June as part of Action Camp 2.0, a training session designed to show them how they could play a role in dismantling practices that create what critics call a school-to-prison pipeline. In the view of organizers, those practices include out-of-school suspension and expulsion, citations and ticketing for school-based offenses that can lead to criminal charges, and at-school arrests for behavior that might not be a crime anywhere else.
About 150 students gathered for “Action Camp” recently in Denver. What is the action they want to take? Dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, the combined school discipline policies that take students off the path to a high school diploma. They are fighting suspension from school for minor offenses, expensive citations for things like being tardy or out of dress code, and police presence at school that they believe leads to unnecessary arrests.
Young people are key to the pipeline’s deconstruction, said James Eichner, the managing director of programs for the Advancement Project, the Washington-based civil rights group that sponsored the weekend’s events.
“When just advocates meet with policymakers, it is just not as effective as when they hear from youth voices,” he said, recounting a March meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. It was one of the youngest members of the group who dared to hand the secretary homework: reading a new agreement between the Denver Police Department and the school district that limits the role of law enforcement in district schools.
Sandy Hook’s Effect
Youth voices are even more critical now, leaders at the June 28-30 training session said. The movement away from zero-tolerance discipline policies and the stationing of police in schools was gaining momentum, they said, until the Dec. 14 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where 26 students and staff members were killed by an armed intruder.
But in the months since the Newtown shootings, at least three states have approved laws that allow teachers to come to school carrying guns, and several states have adopted laws that allow or pay for police officers in schools. President Barack Obama’s call to action on gun control and mental health included a proposal to give schools money that could be used to hire either counselors or police officers.
Many of the shifts in discipline policies and practices away from get-tough tactics have occurred piecemeal, where federal investigators intervened, where local politicians could be swayed to the views of the critics of zero tolerance, or where civil rights groups have made inroads on this front.
Action Camps like the one here and about a half-dozen elsewhere in the past two years are designed to organize and systematize the movement away from zero tolerance where other outside forces may be slower to prompt it. When the sessions end, camp organizers scatter the newly energized students like so many heated kernels of popcorn just before they burst.
Students from at least 16 states from coast to coast attended the all-expenses-paid weekend of activities in Denver.
By the end, participants were armed with lessons about: how to set realistic goals; how important the unlikeliest of allies, such as police officers and principals, could be in their battles; how to back arguments with data; and how, in the trainers’ view, the students are being suppressed—even if they didn’t recognize it until they were stuck with a square on a bingo card they couldn’t cross off.
At Action Camp, acceptance was a theme in nearly every interaction. In addition to name tags, Action Campers wore special labels denoting the gender pronouns they wanted others to use. Restroom signs at the school were papered over to erase gender distinctions and point out only the fixtures available, either a combination of toilets and urinals or toilets only. Students apologized if they blurted that someone was Mexican, rushing to say Latino instead. The catered meals accommodated vegans, vegetarians, carnivores, and those with gluten allergies.
One morning, longtime activist Lalo Montoya, 26, of Denver, and a relative newcomer Ezinne Nwankwo, 18, of Los Angeles, played host in a twist on a classic board game called “The Game of K-12 Life.”
Students with disabilities, students who were gay, black, Latino, learning English, or poor—or some combination thereof—always had the hardest time getting the needed numbers on the dice.
They were played by students who, in some cases, were clearly not a match with their game identity. For example, David Blair, a recent high school graduate from Baltimore who is black, played the white character Dylan. Police chased down students whose characters were late to school or violated the dress code, and some of those students lost their access to school.
Over and over, Mr. Montoya told students who faced expulsion or failure, “The game of life is over for you.”
By contrast, Dylan, the only white character in the game, lives in a five-bedroom house in Long Island, N.Y., where a bad day is losing the state semifinals. (They didn’t name the sport.) When he ran into conflicts with classmates, his school used restorative practices to heal the ruptures that emerged between students, and he didn’t miss any school.
Though it may seem like a stereotyped portrayal, especially in an arena of acceptance, it’s not, said Sanyu Gichie, 20, who is coordinating a campaign to ban out-of-school suspensions in the Wake County, N.C., area.
Black and brown students are more affected by poverty, Ms. Gichie said, and the problems that come with it. She added that teachers who act as inspirations and guides are more scarce for students of minority backgrounds—at least that’s how it feels to her.
Data from a variety of sources and institutions back up the claim that discipline is meted out more severely for students of color and students with disabilities. And no one at Action Camp, even students who admit to some poor behavior in the past, would concede that the lopsided treatment is the result of students’ simply being more unruly.
At Manual Arts Senior High School in Los Angeles, police cars are always outside and police officers are always inside, said Michael Davis, 16, one of the camp participants. His family has been affected by crime, as well as by gang involvement and arrest, he said, and the law-enforcement presence does anything but make him feel safe.
Setting the Scene
The weekend’s events in Denver couldn’t have taken place in a more inspiring setting, on both a large and a small scale.
Students were gathered at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval, a public bilingual Montessori school, whose creation had been a battle every step of the way, said Pam Martinez, one of the founders of Padres y Jovenes Unidos, a Denver-based group that works on improving educational access and quality for all students.
The school opened in 2001 after her organization worked on the ousting of a school board member to pave the way for a school that would improve the academic performance of Latino children in the area.
Even the school’s name served as inspiration to students. Its namesake was a vocal critic of the Denver school board who chastised the board even as she was dying of cancer. Ms. Sandoval would come to meetings lugging an oxygen machine behind her, Ms. Martinez said. She died before the school named in her honor was promised.
Posters rested on easels in the school entryway, documenting the steps Denver and Colorado have taken to change discipline policies and practices in recent years. The shifts here are especially significant: The 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., prompted a surge in police presence in schools, spurred by federal money for such endeavors.
In recent years, however, Colorado law has been changed to eliminate most mandatory expulsions. The agreement between the Denver district and the city police department was reworked to keep officers out of matters that can be handled by administrators. New district policies have diminished the use of out-of-school suspension, although the shift has critics. (“Teachers Tell Another Story on Discipline,” this issue.)
But there is more work to be done in Denver and across the country, said Ms. Martinez and Mr. Montoya, the young advocate who gave Secretary Duncan that homework back in March.
Even without Action Camp, a new generation of activists was ready to step in to do that work, although for some of the students and young adults who attended the gathering, the resolve to do so has now grown. And they will have continuing contact with a national organization that will update them about successful efforts around the country and potentially partner with them.
For example, the oft-suspended Markyona Patrick, 15, said she is determined to take what she’s learned back to Raleigh, N.C. And in Baltimore, recent graduate David Blair, 18, said he will push for a student bill of rights that would guarantee access to a high-quality education for all students, and he will mentor younger students in his region.
“Now,” Mr. Montoya said, “it’s up to them.”
Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
Nirvi Shah, Writer contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2013 edition of Education Week as ‘Camp’ Sows Activism Against Zero Tolerance