Our Youth: Author of Their Own Story & Conductors of Their Own Train

I remember Officer Friendly and McGruff the crime dog from my elementary school years. He was a white man the police department had in a community service position to come around to schools and engage with children. I never feared him at all. Then, there was McGruff the crime dog who implored us to “Take A Bite Out of Crime.” These two figures who represented the police force were not intimidating, intrusive, or abusive in nature in any way. They offered coloring books, a badge, stickers, and an interaction with the community that was helpful and refreshing.

So it comes with great reflection and thought as I contemplate the current landscape of events with school children and school resource officers, who are usually actual police officers or trained guards commissioned by the state to carry weapons and subdue criminals. I have concluded they are making the schoolhouse more like the jailhouse. When a school is more like a jailhouse, with it comes an institutionalized way of thinking. I fear our children won’t be able to come back from that mindset. This is evident across our nation, but recently a group of our amazing young people organized and mobilized against language that was set to be put in place in Milwaukee Public School(MPS).  In the MPS school discipline reforms, they wanted to add the language, “mandate schools to involve the police in situations with students where “criminal activity is suspected.”

Wow. This puts our children in danger to say the least. It also brings questions to my mind:

  • Who determines if a student’s behavior is criminal?.
  • Can any student, teacher, administrator, support staff member, parent or officer themselves make this determination?
  • Why are we handling school discipline issues as crimes in the first place?
  • Do we not attempt to circumvent behavior problems anymore by talking, meeting with parents and providing solutions?
  • Why is school behavior nowadays criminalized and brands kids as criminals, thugs and problems?

In Milwaukee a fire was lit. Activism took hold as the capable youth leaders of the group Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT), a Milwaukee-based youth organization, went into action to convince members of the Milwaukee Public School board to remove the inappropriate language that would have allowed police to become involved in student matters on the whims and suspicions of various faculty or because of complaints. LIT, along with other youth leaders, called for a no vote on the language as well as more student input to reform discipline policies.

The students also received an ally in their fight when Keith Posley, the new MPS superintendent, never allowed the damaging language to be in the final draft of the policy. He struck that line down while adopting the rest of the policy without it. This action is major because it shows how partnerships and support between Superintendents can work to move education forward for our youth while respecting their input on issues concerning them.

Joya Headley, a youth leader at LIT and a senior at Milwaukee School of Languages, gave moving thoughts around the notion of involving police and the unjust school discipline actions faced around the nation. “We need to stop calling the police on black children in their own schools. Black students are unfairly suspected all the time and already experience harsher discipline. Involving police is the problem, not the answer.” I concur with this sister and believe that this movement is bringing light to the unfair discipline practices that involve black and brown children. What’s ironic is the schools wanted them to respect the police when they introduced them to Officer Friendly or McGruff the Crime Dog. Having that same school system call the police on students unnecessarily after they taught them to respect that same authority damages their view of police.

The students were successful in striking down the language. In hearing their story, I could only smile from ear to ear at the progressive organization, mobilization, and movement that these young people conducted. The beginning is near and they are the authors of their own story and conductors of this train. This is activism and it’s a good look for our world. Thank you youth. You are the past, present, and future!

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