Arresting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

From Chicago to Denver, students persist in trying to change the punitive school discipline policies. Alexandria United Teens (AUT) has been collaborating for several years with the Advancement Project, Critical Exposure, Tenants and Workers United plus other advocacy organizations to demand funds for restorative practices in this northern Virginia district. So often school climate experts and superintendents dominate this debate but decision makers need to seek out students who have firsthand knowledge of what’s happening in the classrooms and hallways.

AUT students Brooke Wilson and Cynthia Boateng write in EBONY magazine:

“Our school population is evenly divided among Latinos, African Americans and Whites. Yet students of color–students like us–are pushed out of school through suspensions and expulsions at disproportionately higher rates than our White counterparts, often for things as minor as taking a cookie off of a cafeteria table, or wearing what some deem provocative clothing.”

These anecdotes are backed up with solid data in a comprehensive report that is highlighted by AUT students in a 2-minute video titled Restorative Justice Now.

Specific proposals made repeatedly by AUT to the Superintendent and the Board of Education are outlined on page 13 of A Community Review of Alexandria City Public Schools Implementation of Restorative Justice, including:

  • train 20-30 students to become circle-keepers;
  • designate class periods when circles will be held;
  • train every classroom teacher on relationship-building and harm circles;
  • train every administrator on harm circles.

Salem Meskin of AUT and a T.C. Williams High School senior, who is pictured here about to testify before her School Board, expressed frustration: “The district has promised to implement a set of restorative practices, and to date and they have only marginally begun the work needed to make real change.” This explains why AUT issued a report card with an ‘F.’

Turning the tables where the primary stakeholders—students­—grade their schools and offer constructive solutions should be the norm in every school district. This is one key argument for extending voting rights to 16 and 17-year-olds for School Board candidates.

30-Minute Intro to Policy Advocacy

Looking for a way to introduce policy advocacy to young people who know they are rarely taken seriously by the powers-that-be? This fast-paced workshop resulted in high participation with 50 middle school students, and the second session generated even more discussion.

Of course, this advocacy 101 workshop can be customized to concentrate on specific issues for different age groups and seamlessly incorporated as part of a longer training. Contact us if we can help you identify relevant youth-led success stories or specific advocacy strategies.


Print out four sheets in a big font or make posters, each with one letter and definition. Tape each one in different sections of a room.

P = Publicity

E = Evidence

S = Support

T = Tenacity


Ask for two volunteers and tell them—without talking—to act out the one word in caps that is written on an index card and get people to guess it:  If you think you are too small to make a difference, you’ve never been in bed with a MOSQUITO.

Once the audience figures out the word, have one of the volunteers read the quote. Follow up on what young people know instinctively or from experience: their complaints are often ignored, demands dismissed, solutions discarded despite promises about the importance of ‘youth voice.’ (By the way, shouldn’t it be ‘voices’ since no one individual can ever speak for one age group?)

So how can you–especially if you are not of voting age–be seen and heard and respected by decision makers. It boils down to acting like a mosquito or a PEST!

Ask everyone to look around the room at four important elements needed to make an impact as a change agent.  For example, the ‘S’ in PEST could include…[invite answers such as friends, adult allies, organizations, school board members, legislators, etc.]

Here are a few true stories. Most of these youth-led initiatives were successful for several reasons but please decide which PEST factor seems the most critical. Once you choose, move to that corner of the room. Again, there are several correct answers. Once people are in four clusters, or perhaps fewer, invite each group to share with everyone why they chose that specific campaign element. Emphasize different PEST strategies and the interplay between each of these elements. [My PEST selection is noted at the end of each story.]

  • Many public schools in Baltimore needed repairs. Statistics and speeches about cracked ceilings, no heat, etc. failed to get the attention of decision-makers. A group of elementary, middle and high school students snapped 1,000 photographs documenting bad school conditions. Fifty of the pictures were selected for exhibits held in the city and also at the Maryland Statehouse. Legislators voted $100 Million increase for school repairs, due in part to this visual ‘photovoice’ project coordinated by Critical Exposure. [E = Evidence]
  • A youth-led coalition scored a big win getting a Student T Pass for Boston mass transit. Three years resulted in a major research report that documented the need for affordable transportation. Advocates organized sit-ins and grabbed the attention of state officials wearing “Mobili-T” and “Affordabili-T” superhero costumes. Youth activist Sakona Fitts claimed this 8-year-old victorious campaign shows “the power of youth.” [P = Publicity]
  • A group of 8th graders noticed their classmates had to walk in the grass along a busy road. They raised the issue with their state senator and he told them it was a county issue and helped arrange a meeting with the local Planning Commission in Florida. It looked promising that money to build sidewalks could come from Safe Routes to School grant program but other projects pushed this one aside. So the students drafted a petition and collected over 500 signatures to pressure the County Commission. Four years later, these students attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony for this $700,000 construction project that grew into a multipurpose pedestrian/bike path. [S = Support]
  • Middle and high school members of School Girls Unite, a global initiative of the Youth Activism Project, learned about Canadian youth who were pushing for an international day focused on gender equality and human rights for girls everywhere.  They decided to launch a parallel campaign in the U.S. and contacted hundreds of organizations getting official endorsements. They repeatedly pestered the White House Council on Women and Girls and eventually met with Presidential aides. Their nearly two-year mobilization helped persuade the U.S. government to co-sponsor the resolution that was approved by the United Nations General Assembly designating October 11th as the International Day of the Girl Child.  [T = Tenacity]
  • Wrap up by inviting more discussion, for example, how to capture the attention of mainstream media outlets as well as social media. This brainstorming can flow into developing a campaign strategy.

A lot of ideas can be generated in this quick 30-minute Advocacy 101 workshop. For additional workshop modules, check out resources on our Freebies page.