A guest post series by Jack Seigel
Sometimes it’s hard to be a progressive in the county. Thankfully some high school friends and other community activists started the West County Community Action Network (We Can) in response to Ferguson and problematic racial relations in our backyard, through actions like weekly Black Lives Matter vigils that rotate through west county.
Another initiative of We Can is work on the school-to-prison pipeline. Members met last Saturday after the vigil to talk about a potentially problematic new statute that adds a felony class which could be applied to children who fight at school. Past experience leads us to believe that this statute would be applied in a racially discriminatory way and further strengthen the school to prison pipeline.
Given that Missouri is already the worst state for racially applied discipline, we have a lot of work to do towards a more just and equitable future — towards a world with fewer felon labels and a focus on rehabilitative justice; a world that protects children’s rights to education instead of criminalizing them; and one where we address why kids are fighting, and why people are committing crimes.
It’s time to understand that poverty and lack of opportunity are the root causes of crime. It’s time to come together and provide a world where we all can thrive, not one where people profit from locking up and exploiting the labor of fellow human beings. There is a lot to do, and right now that includes understanding and responding to the statute change.
Community response ranged from confusion to fear to outrage. In order to provide clarity on the issue and to leverage the sudden interest in reforming the school-to-prison pipeline, Metropolitan Congregations United (MCU) organized last week’s event, which had a huge turnout. The evening started with organizers from MCU explaining the background, followed by small group discussions about initial reactions.
Representatives from Legal Services of Eastern Missouri and a former Assistant Attorney General explained that the statute was actually not changing much and that children could always be charged. Additionally, kids are always processed through the juvenile justice system before they reach the criminal justice system, except in the most extreme circumstances. This was not satisfactory to members in the audience who wondered why legislators needed to make a change if not to grab more power over an already oppressed group of people— minority children. Additionally, the timing made it seem like the community did not have a chance to respond since the change would go into effect on January 1, 2017. A final indication this was indeed a big change was that school districts had issued statements about how the statute change could criminalize kids.
As people voiced their concerns, it became clear that this passion and momentum could be channeled into something positive. Ideas for increasing involvement included contacting school board members and supporting people who protest and organize around issues of racial justice.
The meeting then broke into small groups and developed a list of possible responses:
- Create of an app for reporting school staff and administrators at the community level.
- Hold assemblies/public forums for parents to discuss issues in the schools.
- Make flow charts for rights of parents and students in the educational setting.
- Find ways to relate to voters in rural areas and the politicians that represent them.
- Hold legislative bodies accountable by making them host open forums in their communities and keeping tabs on their legislation and voting records.
- Organize days of action in Jefferson City, like the one organized by the ACLU.
- Translate legislation into layman’s terms instead of 600 plus pages of legalese.
- Eliminate suspensions.
- Conduct professional development around anti-bias training.
- Hire more teachers of color.
- Opt for mediation of school conflict over immediate discipline.
- Focus on school board elections in the spring.
The MCU facilitator then invited everyone back in a few weeks to develop task forces to act on the action steps each breakout group voted on.
And of course, as we enter the new year, with a new president, a new governor and an increase in hate crimes against minorities, we must remember that it is everyone’s responsibility to speak out against injustice and hate. Silence is violence and we can only progress as a society when we commit to doing so without leaving everyone behind.