AURORA SALDIVAR/Coachella Unincorporated
Late last year, I was given the opportunity to fly out across the country to attend the Senate Judiciary Schools to Prison Pipeline hearing as a guest of The California Endowment.
The purpose of these hearings is to combat a culture of zero tolerance policies and change the ‘tough on crime’ rhetoric that has earned our country the prize for highest incarceration rate.
“As a nation we can do better,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin (D-Illinois), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who addressed the need for comprehensive reform of the juvenile justice system. “For many young people, our schools are increasingly a gateway to the criminal justice system.”
“Our approach must be comprehensive and evidence based,” said Congressman Robert Scott (D-Virginia), who explained the more efficient use of funds to create a proactive system focused on prevention — “building strong children” rather than attempting to “fix broken men.”
“Solutions not suspensions,” said Edward Ward, 20, university student from Chicago, before the panel at judiciary hearing. “They treat us like criminals.”
Ward described the overall fear of interrogation and “constant state of alert” that loomed the halls of his high school due to constant police presence. “I was afraid to make even the most minor of mistakes.”
I felt overwhelming apprehension listening to Ward’s personal testimony. Are these suspension and arrest rates really making schools safer? This is an important conversation that involves educational inequality. Latino students are nearly one-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended than their white peers.
In turn, this leaves that population group at an increased risk to enter the criminal justice system – an alarming thought when we are looking at over 3 million students getting suspended or expelled from school across the United States each year. These statistics hit close to home because my Eastern Coachella Valley community is predominantly low-income Latinos.
“The time for action is now,” said Joe Torre, co-chair of the Children Exposed to Violence task force. He had presented a new report form The Adverse Childhood Experience Study earlier that same morning on the problem of children exposed to violence. There is a strong correlation between the two; the numbers show that violence truly does beget violence.
Zero tolerance policies simply do not cut it in negligent system failing to view and treat the child as a whole. It has proven counterproductive to simply discipline the behavior. We must become, as a nation, more proactive in our approach. We must take into account cases where abuse is taking place, marginalized areas with high exposure to violence and gang activity, and also cases where children are suffering from undiagnosed mental illnesses.
“Just how do we push the media to initiate a different conversation?” asked Dwayne Betts, spokesman for the Campaign for Youth Justice whose personal story inspired him to join in this advocacy movement.
The invitation to bring youth voices to the table strikes me as paramount in this reform movement. When I look to the issues within my own community, I have seen the overwhelming wave of positive results of youth empowerment, which is why it warmed me to see that both the hearing and overflow rooms were filled to the capacity, partially due to the overwhelming presence of high school students in attendance.
As a youth journalist from an underserved community, I cannot help but to have been filled with an overwhelming hope for systematic reform of school discipline that will, in fact, protect students by keeping them off the streets and safe in schools.