Transformative Justice for Our Children: Reconstructing a New Educational System for the Future
Latesha Newson, MSW, LCSW
Chair, NASW-Illinois Chapter Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Committee (NASW-IL DEIC)
The National Association of Social Workers, Illinois Chapter (NASW-IL) has diligently worked to address issues of racial and social justice for marginalized and underserved communities, especially those within the Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) community. In conjunction with the chapter’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (DEIC), NASW-IL continues in our pursuit for transformative justice and the dismantling of oppressive and broken systems. The disparities and inequities in the educational system have become overwhelmingly overt and further perpetuates marginalization of underserved students. The school-to-prison pipeline is a national issue which disproportionately impacts children and youth of the BIPOC communities and prematurely exposes them to the unjust cycle of incarceration. This practice has contributed to the national social problem of mass incarceration and has functioned to destroy BIPOC families and communities. Police and school resource officers (SROs) in the school setting are counterproductive and inconsistent with best practices in addressing the complex needs of our students and families. Our current pandemic has further exacerbated these complex issues and needs of our students which requires a more thoughtful, supportive, and trauma informed approach. The implementation of zero tolerance policies by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) approximately 10 years ago negatively impacted school culture and perpetuated the school-to-prison pipeline cycle. The school setting is a learning environment which should be supportive of children’s growth and overall development rather than a punitive system. The NASW-IL DEIC upholds its position and recommendations that SROs and police be removed from the school setting and for funding to be reallocated to support the needs of our students through increase in social workers in schools, the implementation of behavioral health teams trained in trauma-informed and restorative justice practices, and after school prevention programming (Newson & Rubbelke, 2020).
What is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the school-to-prison pipeline is, “a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and pushed out.” This great injustice is largely due to the policing of SROs in schools.
A report by the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law (Mbekeani-Wiley, 2017) showed that CPS has been hiring police officers without any specialized training to primary and secondary schools. These same police officers have accumulated over $2 million in misconduct settlements between 2012 and 2016. Rather than increasing student safety, the presence of these police officers and SROs in schools creates a culture of contentiousness and mistrust in the academic environment and unjustly exposes our students to the criminal justice system at a younger age. This practice is unethical and discriminatory as it typically is aimed at certain groups of students.
In a report published by the ACLU showed how the impact of policing in schools disproportionately affects and targets students of color, students with disabilities, and students of color with disabilities (Whitaker et al., 2019). . Their report showed that students of color are more likely to go to a school with a police officer and are more likely to be referred to law enforcement or be arrested at school. The data also shows that Black students are more than twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement and three times as likely to be arrested, with some states showing that Black girls were eight times more likely to be arrested than white girls. During the 2015 to 2016 school year, 1.6 million students attended a school with a sworn law enforcement officer and no counselor or social worker. The NASW Standards for School Social Work Services (2012) calls for at least one social worker per 250 students in schools, and one social worker for 50 students in schools with intensive needs. Even with recent hires made by CPS, the ratio of social workers to students does not come near these recommended levels. This is a complete disservice to children and youth in Chicago who are bombarded with trauma on a consistent basis. The city of Chicago is currently in crisis which many see as a state of emergency. We must be prepared and respond to the cry and needs of our children and youth by providing services and supports that are aimed to treat their complex trauma.
Traumatic Impact of SROs on Student Populations
Trauma is defined as a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing. For children who are typically extraordinarily empathic, they find it difficult for their young minds to express, process, and learn from their traumatic experiences as they do not have the emotional capacity to understand or cope with their experiences. Symptoms of trauma resulting from these experiences include anger, mood swings, panic attacks, intrusive thoughts, racing thoughts, insomnia, hopelessness/helplessness, concentration/memory problems, indecision, cutting, drug/alcohol abuse, violence, apathy, and sometimes suicide. The school setting should be a safe space for everyone. When children and adolescents are hurt and sad, they act out, often irrationally and with anger, as a signal to adults that they need urgent and immediate support and intervention—not the intervention of law enforcement.
The social, racial, and political unrest, as well as the global pandemic of 2020, exposed our nation, including our children, to undeniable complex trauma. Many families were impacted by the loss of jobs, forced into isolation, and were confronted with police brutality via the media at an astounding rate. Add upon this the impact of gun and community violence which plagues many communities. Our students are in a state of emergency and in need of support and effective intervention. Let’s be clear, our children will come back to school exhibiting increased trauma symptoms. The question is whether CPS will be equipped to effectively meet the needs of those students. School personnel must be equipped with tools to respond to a child in crisis safely, effectively, and without law enforcement. With the removal of police and SROs from our schools, money should be reallocated to support the social-emotional learning needs of our students. We must invest in mental health services and supports rooted in trauma-informed restorative justice practice. The reallocation of money could also be spent in after school and prevention programming. Trauma happens quickly and can take a lifetime to heal from. We all have an equal capacity to be traumatized, and we must understand that children do not have the capacity to regulate their emotions and behaviors by themselves. They need the support and assistance of skilled clinicians to facilitate regulation and proper de-escalation. If we support our students instead of threatening them with incarceration, we can help bridge the gap and re-build relationships and create a harmonious culture within the school. This very model was adopted and implemented at Curie High School. With the development of behavioral health teams that are versed in trauma-informed care and restorative justice, Curie High School saw remarkable improvements in the outcomes of student behaviors, grades, and attendance. Curie High School fostered a holistic and supportive environment which not only impacted the students but also their families and communities. The leadership of Curie High School shifted the cultural environment of the school setting which has proven to be a successful model for over the past 10 years.
In our consideration of the needs of our students in the school setting, we must also consider the unique needs of our LGBTQ+ children who are marginalized and underserved as well. LGBTQ+ children and youth are met with immense pressure in their attempts to assimilate in the school setting. They are often ostracized, ridiculed, and experience a number of other school-related stressors which impact their mental health. According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), research concludes that youth who identify as LGBTQ+ also experience increased risk for mental health conditions and suicide. LGBTQ+ youth are two times as likely to report persistent feelings of sadness than their heterosexual peers. Youth who identify as transgender are twice as likely to experience depressive symptoms, suicidal ideations, and attempt suicide compared to cisgender lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, and questioning youth. Many people who identify as LGBTQ+ face discrimination, prejudice, denial of civil and human rights, harassment, and family rejection, which can lead to new or increased symptoms of depression and other mental health conditions. According to the 2019 National School Climate Survey, 86% of LGBTQ+ youth reported being harassed/assaulted in school which significantly contributes to their mental health risk factors and symptoms. In addition, LGBTQ+ youth, particularly those of color, are disproportionately disciplined and arrested at school. LGBTQ youth are at a higher risk than their non-LGBTQ+ peers for facing school-related disciplines such as suspension, expulsion, and arrest, but they do not engage in illegal behavior any more than their non–LGBTQ+ peers. Training on cultural sensitivity and the needs of LGBTQ+ children and youth in schools is vital.
As the Chicago Public School Board considers their decision regarding the future of SROs and police in schools, we ask that they consider needs and the future of our children. The educational system has been reactive in their decision-making as it concerns our children rather than being supportive. This has been evident in past policies which have done much harm to those most at risk, including the BIPOC community. Now is the time, as we are endeavoring to reimagine and reconstruct our educational system, to devise a comprehensive and equitable plan that will meet the needs of ALL students, not just some, and to dismantle the historical trauma and injustice of the school-to-prison pipeline.
California LGBTQ Health & Human Services Network. (n.d.) LGBTQ youth & the school-to-prison pipeline. #out4mentalhealth. https://bhsd.sccgov.org/sites/g/files/exjcpb711/files/o4mh-schooltoprisonpipeline-factsheet-00-00-00.pdf
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Mbekeani-Wiley, Michelle. (2017.) Handcuffs in hallways: The state of policing in Chicago Public Schools. Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.
National Alliance on Mental Illness. (n.d.) LGBTQI. https://www.nami.org/Your-Journey/Identity-and-Cultural-Dimensions/LGBTQI
National Association of Social Workers. (2012.) NASW standards for school social work services. https://www.socialworkers.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=1Ze4-9-Os7E%3D&portalid=0
Newson, L., & Rubbelke, K. (2020, November 18.) Final recommendations: NASW-Illinois Chapter task force on racial justice. National Association of Social Workers, Illinois Chapter. https://www.naswil.org/post/final-recommendations-nasw-illinois-chapter-task-force-on-racial-justice
Resendes, W. (2020, July 9). Police in schools continue to target Black, Brown, and Indigenous students with disabilities. The Trump administration has data that’s likely to prove it. American Civil Liberties Union. https://www.aclu.org/news/criminal-law-reform/police-in-schools-continue-to-target-black-brown-and-indigenous-students-with-disabilities-the-trump-administration-has-data-thats-likely-to-prove-it/
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Whitaker, A., Torres-Guillén, S., Morton, M., Jordan, H., Coyle, S., Mann, A., & Sun, W. (2019). Cops and no counselors: How the lack of school mental health staff is harming students. American Civil Liberties Union. https://www.aclu.org/sites/default/files/field_document/030419-acluschooldisciplinereport.pdf