Latest on Student Campaign for Restorative Justice

I continue to be educated and inspired by students who refuse to give up trying to stop the school to prison pipeline. Alexandria United Teens (AUT) has been collaborating for over 4 years with the Advancement Project, Critical Exposure, NAACP, Tenants and Workers United plus other advocacy organizations to demand funding 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 an excellent 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, whom I’ve watched testify before the 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. Such a city charter amendment will be on the November ballot in San Francisco and we should take notice that all seven SF Board of Education members voted unanimously to support youth suffrage.

Voting Rights Debate Gathering Momentum

The San Francisco Board of Education voted unanimously for the “Political Enfranchisement of 16 and 17-year-olds for Local Elections” Resolution.

It says a lot that these seven School Board members believe students should be able to vote them in or out of office. Even better, the Board is looking ahead to the November ballot that is expected to include a proposed charter amendment to lower the voting age for the SF School Board as well as City and County Board of Supervisors officials. On April 12, the Board also approved teaching high school students about the voting process and the significant political parties. The school district is also expected to offer voter registration drives at high schools at least once a year.

Jillian Wu, Vice Chair of the SF Youth Commission, told Board members that a recent survey of 5,000 students showed that 80 percent of youth would be willing to vote if given the opportunity. She testified that suffrage is important for all high school students, but “especially those who do not have family members or community members who vote or are able to vote.”

The students knew they had four votes in favor of the resolution but won over the other three Board members, no doubt helped by the standing room only crowd, compelling testimony and their powerpoint presentation.

Balboa High School Senior Shara Orquiza makes the case:

“San Francisco is our home too. We should have a say on what goes on in our communities. We’ve never been given an opportunity to take direct action on issues we care about until this initiative came around. Young people like me are experiencing a rapidly changing San Francisco and we deserve to have a say in the direction of our city.”

Orquiza says she was first inspired to participate more in the political process after taking an Ethnic Studies course at her high school.

Next step: May 3, 2016 SF Board of Supervisors will hold its first ever joint meeting with the Youth Commission about Vote16SF and other measures to boost turnout. Last November, only 45 percent of registered voters cast a ballot.

For update, check out http://vote16sf.org/ as well as more information on the two cities outside of Washington, DC that have already lowered the voting age to 16 and national organizations that are actively supporting SF and other youth suffrage efforts.