Schools can be places of healing or they can be places of harm. There is no in-between. I came to learn this through my work as an attorney working at the intersections of youth justice and education equity. I worked in Philadelphia fighting to keep marginalized youth in schools, and to ensure that for the youth who were pushed into juvenile prisons, those prisons were held accountable for providing education.
I now work in New York serving youth who have been impacted by the criminal system. I have the privilege of working with youth in New York City’s public schools, where we provide workshops about legal rights, and I work with youth who are imprisoned on Rikers, hoping to help them put the pieces of their lives back together, including getting back into school.
Overwhelmingly, I see what everyone knows already about youth who have juvenile or criminal system involvement — it often begins with school. Schools have a unique opportunity to be a turning point for marginalized youth. I hope that we can use transformative justice to make schools tools for liberation.
On Sept. 27, 2017, a 15-year-old high school student named Matthew was stabbed to death by his schoolmate, Abel, in a Bronx high school. It was the first in-school murder in New York City Schools since 1993. The stabbing happened in front of a classroom of students.
My heart breaks for Matthew’s family and friends. And as Matthew’s family and classmates grieve, advocates like myself want to encourage schools and partner with them as they work toward healing our children. There are strategies that communities can build upon to create safety instead of criminalization. We can make schools into healing, affirming environments for all students if we invest our resources and our hope into making that a reality.
Witnessing a murder is an Adverse Childhood Experience that will forever affect each student in that classroom. The trauma students experienced can affect academic performance and their interactions with one another. Schools should develop a deep, thoughtful understanding of what students need, by listening to students.
For decades, whenever parents and school leaders learned about violence in schools, our schools and government responded with knee-jerk reactions: requests for more metal detectors, more police presence, more suspensions and treatment of students as threats. I worry that is the inclination in the aftermath of Matthew’s death. Criminalization impedes learning and does more harm than good. Worse, it diverts precious resources away from strategies that have the potential to transform schools.
Decades ago, prominent academics and political figures touted the idea of “superpredators.” Our country put youth in juvenile prisons across the country. In New York, we decided that youth as young as 16, unable to legally rent an apartment, were old enough to be sent to Rikers Island. We now know that way of thinking was wrong, and instead can use options that address the main issues at the heart of school violence, including trauma.
School-based mental health services are a broad array of preventative interventions that can include assessments, counseling, referral activities and services. These services should be provided through trained professionals, teachers (where appropriate) and school staff with a deep understanding of adolescent brain development and the needs of black, Native and Latinx youth, and LGBTQ youth in particular. We should not invest resources in training school safety agents to respond to crises, including bullying or interpersonal conflict. Communities should shift resources from practices that aim to expel and dehumanize students to practices that can address the underlying causes of violence within our schools.
Matthew’s mother told The New York Times that his school used to have a program where staff walked students home from school, “creating a bond,” but the program no longer exists. Teachers and restorative justice coordinators all share that a fundamental principle of restorative justice is relationships that staff build with students, allowing them to pre-empt and resolve conflict.
Schools in New York City have begun the work of supporting students. Schools like Jordan L. Mott Middle School, The James Baldwin School (Outward Bound), and Edward A. Reynolds West Side High School have invested time and energy into “processes and structures for building community, repairing relationships when conflict happens, and supporting everyone to be accountable to one another.”
I recognize the common fear that if schools do not utilize strict zero tolerance policies, metal detectors or police there will be widespread violence that puts children at risk. But the evidence points to the opposite: Metal detectors have a harmful impact on students’ perceptions of school safety, and they do not reduce the incidents of physical conflicts between students. Study after study also show that the communities where metal detectors are present are often communities of color, which furthers a false narrative of youth of color, particularly black and Latinx youth, being inherently violent.
I’ve witnessed students being cursed out first thing in the morning by school safety because they forget to take off a belt before going through a metal detector, and I know it doesn’t keep them safe. Yet historically the NYC Board of Education assigned nine officers and rearranged students’ schedules just to accommodate time-consuming metal detector screenings each morning. This requires significant resources to pay for law enforcement salaries.
I hear that quality interventions like restorative justice and mental health support are too expensive, but if we reallocate resources away from law enforcement children can thrive. According to the Urban Youth Collaborative and the Center for Popular Democracy, NYC has more than 5,500 New York Police Department personnel in its schools, compared to only 2,800 full-time counselors. Alternatively, schools can invest in counselors, therapists and evidence-based programs, which can pay dividends in terms of student engagement, student safety and the long-term quality of a school.
Police presence increases the likelihood that our youth will be arrested and increases racial disparities in the criminal legal system. Our national consciousness has been shocked by numerous videos of students, particularly black and Latinx youth, being thrown to the ground and handcuffed by law enforcement for things as small as not taking off headphones. If instead, each school had multiple school psychologists and quality therapists available it would cost roughly the same amount to operate a weapon detection system, but likely have positive and far-reaching benefits for student feelings of safety and student achievement.
Ashley Sawyer is a lawyer who works with children and youth at the intersections of the juvenile or criminal legal systems, and education. She currently works at Youth Represent in New York City and previously worked at the Education Law Center in Philadelphia. She tweets at @ACSawyerJustice