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The Fight to Create Safe School Environments in Eastside Schools

This is part of a series examining Restorative Justice in schools and communities, produced in partnership with the California Endowment.


Discriminatory zero tolerance policies that criminalize young men of color and push students out is a reality Eastside students know too well. For many black and brown youth living in low income communities, schools serve as institutions that push out students and provide links to the criminal system, rather than institutions of education and support. Unfortunately school environments have acted as though they are dealing with troubled students, rather than students who are dealing with problems and harsh life circumstances, when drafting and implementing school discipline policies. These practices have become a microcosm in the way youth are viewed and targeted by local, state, and national policies.

The Eastside is a low income immigrant community that has faced extreme community conditions, from violence to being home to some of the most underfunded and under-resourced schools in the nation. The Eastside is also an over-policed community, where young people are often made the target of racially-biased anti-youth policies. Yet the Eastside has also been central in challenging and transforming such policies. In 1968 Eastside students organized and led school walk outs in order to demand a better quality education. In 2000 a broad coalition of students, called Youth Organizing Communities, formed to prevent the anti youth Proposition 21 from becoming law. Although Proposition 21 was passed, it sparked a statewide movement to fight against the criminalization of youth of color. In 2003 InnerCity Struggle and community members began to fight back against anti-zero tolerance policies, such as a tardy room that pushed students out, and set a strong foundation towards ending zero tolerance.

In 2003, United Students, a campus-based student organization supported by InnerCity Struggle, was frustrated with the overcrowding and high dropout rates at Garfield High School. Garfield was originally built for 1,500 students, but was instead attempting to serve 5,000 students on a year-round, staggered, multi-track system. Some tracks were preferred and, therefore, there was an entrenched inequality of course offerings, academic opportunities, and quality of teaching staff. There seemed to be no incentive to support all students to remain in school, and this led to the implementation of policies such as a tardy room, where students were sent and held for long periods of time if they arrived at school even one minute late. As a result, the majority of students would rather miss an entire class period, or not come to school at all, if they were running late. This meant students would receive truancy tickets while attempting to avoid the tardy room, leading them into a relationship with law enforcement. Because youth of color are disproportionately suspended or expelled, they are also disproportionately referred to the juvenile justice system and represented in juvenile hall, jails, and prisons.

That year United Students launched a campaign to eliminate the tardy room. After securing a commitment from Garfield administration that they would eliminate the tardy room and implement a proactive approach, the school Principal changed and the tardy room was returned. We realized we needed to address the root cause of the multiple issues impacted by overcrowding.

United Students members began to build a grassroots campaign to eliminate the tardy room. Students saw how the tardy room pushed students out of school and criminalized them for being even one minute late to school. Members began to survey the student body, asking them if they felt such punitive policies helped students learn. The overwhelming response to that question was "No." Garfield students began to organize. They researched alternatives to zero tolerance and the history of anti-youth discipline policies, and build alliances with student leaders at other Eastside schools to move the campaign forward. Working alongside school administration and community leaders, a pro-active tardy policy that supported students, their parents, and acknowledged the social conditions the student might be facing, was drafted and implemented. Once the tardy room was eliminated, a change in climate occurred on campus -- students felt a little less pushed out and less targeted by their school administration.

In 2009, with the great leadership of Principal Huerta, the school staff worked with parents and community to develop a plan to improve the school, and that included the small learning community model and meaningful implementation of positive behavior interventions and supports. This shows the positive results of community members working alongside schools to create an environment in which students can thrive.

Although InnerCity Struggle was able to set a foundation for challenging zero tolerance policies, more work is needed to ensure school policies aren't creating pipelines to prison, and it's happening state wide.

The School Climate Bill of Rights passed in 2013, marking a historic victory for Restorative Justice. Pushed forward by the Brother Son Selves Coalition, compromised of community organizations such as InnerCity Struggle, the School Climate Bill of Rights is a package of policy changes that rolls back "zero tolerance" discipline and institutes resource-based alternatives. Introduced by LAUSD Board President Monica Garcia, it was passed by the LAUSD Board on May 14, 2013. One of the key components of the Bill of Rights is a set of policy principles that redefines and limits the role of police in school discipline matters. This bill rolls back zero tolerance policies in all schools, district wide. One of the most important pieces of the bill is the ending of "willful defiance" suspensions, which have specifically targeted black students. The passing of the Bill was a historic signifier of the willingness of our school board to enact change and start to hammer in the nail on the coffin of the school-to-prison track system in LAUSD.

The School Climate Bill of Rights not only requires schools to implement and use Restorative Justice practices along with providing school suspension data to parents, it also encourages schools to adopt an overall shift in the way schools treat students, towards implementing school discipline policies that support students. As InnerCity Struggle, we know that school transformation is possible, and we are going to continue this fight to ensure students are treated as human beings, not criminals.

About the Author

Raised in East Los Angeles Nancy Meza is the Strategic Communications Coordinator at InnerCity Struggle.
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