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President Obama and United States Congress: You Can't Build Peace with a Piece

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In signing this petition, I proclaim my support for the national statement (directly below) written by youth of color on School Safety and Gun Violence in the Aftermath of the Shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

We can imagine the pain and suffering that the youth and families in Newtown, Connecticut are experiencing.  As youth growing up on some of America’s deadliest streets, we are all too familiar with gun violence and its impacts. Too many of us have been shot and shot at.  We have buried our friends and our family members. Nearly all of us have been to more funerals than graduations.  No one wants the violence to stop more than we do.

But, we have also seen how attempts to build public safety with security systems, armed police and prisons have failed.    We want college prep, not prison prep. 

President Nixon declared the War on Drugs and enacted the first use of zero tolerance laws in communities.  President Reagan expanded the War on Drugs and his Secretary of Education, William Bennett, enacted zero tolerance in schools.  School shootings were used to expand these policies at the local, state and federal level, most famously by President Clinton following the Columbine shootings.  For 40 years, federal, state and local dollars have gone toward the massive build-up of police departments, juvenile halls, jails, prisons, Immigration enforcement and detention, and border security while simultaneously severe cuts have been made to our school and higher education budgets. Locally, these policies resulted in the takeover of school security by police departments and school resource officers.

As a result, in communities of color throughout the nation, students now experience a vicious school-to-jail track.  Despite the fact that school shootings have overwhelmingly happened in white schools, youth of color have paid the price.   We have been handcuffed and humiliated in front of other students and staff for “offenses” as small as being late to school; detained in police interrogation rooms at our school; expelled from school for carrying nail clippers, markers or baseball caps; and arrested – even in elementary schools – for fights that used to be solved in the principal’s office.  With our backpacks searched and our lockers and cars tossed, at the end of a billy club or the butt of a gun, knees down-hands up, or face down on cold concrete or burning asphalt – we have experienced the true face of “public safety.”   These policies haven’t protected us, helped us to graduate or taught us anything about preventing violence.  They have taught us to fear a badge, to hate school and to give up on our education.  We understand too well that guns in anyone’s hands are not the solution.

You can’t build peace with a piece

The movement to end the school-to-jail track, mass incarceration and deportation of youth of color is our generation’s civil and human rights struggle.  Throughout the nation, our efforts are pressuring school districts and state legislatures to dismantle unfair discipline practices that force youth out of school.  We have also pushed for positive student supports that not only dramatically increase school safety but also improve graduation rates.  The tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School must not interrupt this progress or return us to policies and practices that are racist, inhumane and unjust. 

We are calling on all federal, state and local officials to:  

1.  End Zero Tolerance and other policies that take away school-based decision-making and force schools to suspend, expel and arrest students. 

2.  Eliminate willful defiance, disorderly conduct and other minor infractions as punishable by suspension, expulsion, ticketing or arrest. 

3. Reject efforts to expand police and military in our schools as well as razor/barbed wire, security gates, metal detectors, surveillance and increased use of handcuffs and police detention inside and around our campuses. 

4. Reject efforts to increase criminal penalties, mandatory minimums, gun enhancements and the transfer of more youth into adult courts that will unfairly target youth of color for extreme sentencing and decades of incarceration.

5.  Fund Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) – specific strategies educators can use to reward positive student behavior, hold students accountable for our actions in ways that keep us in school, cause self-reflection and growth, and improve our relationships with school staff. 

6.  Fund Community Intervention/Peacebuilders in schools – trusted community leaders who are trained to provide safe passage to and from schools; create a safety perimeter in and around schools especially during breaks and lunch; reach out to students who are regularly late or missing from school; work with youth who are acting out in class or on campus; prevent inter-group or inter-neighborhood conflict – often contributing to or stemming from neighborhood conflicts that, if unresolved, can lead to serious violence in the community; handle rumor control to prevent future violence and retaliation; run violence prevention, conflict mediation and restorative/transformative justice meetings; and make home visits to students who are struggling in school. 

7.  Fund Restorative/Transformative Justice (RJ/TJ) in schools, which develops the skills of students, staff and other community members in conflict mediation and problem solving, de-escalation of violence, and techniques to defuse bullying, harassment and disrespect. 

8.  Support the development of schools as Community Centers open year around, after school and on weekends to extend the school day, build public safety, and increase student attendance and achievement through homework help, tutoring, college preparation, counseling and health/mental health care, job training and placement, arts and recreation, even night school for parents and older family members. 

9. Provide every student pre-school through college with a Metro/bus/public transportation pass to ensure we have transportation to and from school, while also providing unlimited transportation to essential resources throughout our communities including employment, housing, food, health care, etc. 

10.  Ensure that every young person on Probation or Parole and all youth coming home from lock-up are immediately enrolled in a quality education program, and end the illegal blocking of system-involved youth from schools and entire districts.

11. End the discrimination against undocumented youth, the cooperation of school districts and local law enforcement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (including the Secure Communities Program), and eliminate barriers to all immigrant youths’ access to education and student supports from pre-school through college.

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