Aissa Dearing, 18

Student, Activist, and Community Organizer

Tell me about your work with climate justice and racial justice. 

Climate justice and racial justice are intrinsically linked, so Elijah King and I founded the Durham Youth Climate Justice Initiative to set an intentional space for students of color who may not know a lot about the climate crisis and want an entry point into the movement. It’s such a knowledge-and-science-based movement, and that’s who we prioritize in the fight against the climate crisis. So, we wanted to shed light on more young people’s experiences with climate justice. And I’ve been working in racial equity, especially around barriers that students of color face in Durham Public Schools and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline.

Can you tell me about your petition to the Durham County school board? 

I’ve been working with the Youth Justice Project for a couple of years now, and last year we hosted a town hall that brought together students, parents—even the Sheriff’s Department and a couple of Board of Education members were there—to talk about reforming their relationship to provide more transparency, accountability, and oversight of the school resource officer department. We didn’t get any of the demands that we asked for. 

A year later, in light of recent events, I’m asking to completely terminate that relationship. My school has one guidance counselor for 400 students, a part-time school nurse, and we don’t know who our school social workers or school psychologists are. I feel like those are the areas of priority for students, and that’s what truly makes a school climate safer. I’m asking the school board to reconsider their definition of safety.

Where is the petition? 

It’s actually on Instagram. I wanted to direct it towards young people, and sometimes people gravitate away from trying to click another link and putting their email into a petition, so I decided to do it entirely through Instagram and Facebook so it would be more directed for young people. In a recent comment that Durham Public Schools made about this particular issue, in response to my open letter, they said that their stakeholders would be concerned about removing school resource officers. Part of the reason I wrote that petition and part of the reason that I’m planning this march on June 13 is to remind Durham Public Schools who the real stakeholders are. And that’s students and teachers. 

Is a school resource officer a variant of a police officer that’s specifically for schools?

Yes, but honestly, in my opinion, their role is essentially to act as police. So, while there’s a nicer name attached to it, and they supposedly have more training to work specifically with students, there’s not really a difference. They still have the uniform on, they still carry guns and other weapons, and they still have the capacity and willingness to make arrests, and they do that.

How does the presence of these school resource officers affect students of color?

I feel like there’s a general distrust with government officials [and] with police in communities of color anyway. So, their presence almost makes us feel like threats, and that they need to be there just in case we do something wrong—even though our behaviors are, to be honest, expected of 13-to-14-year-old kids. So, while we believe that we’re just making mistakes or trying to work through behaviors that may be a result of mental health issues or things that we’ve seen at home, school resource officers kind of see that as us acting as adults, or acting as a threatening presence. That’s not what we are.

What can people do to help?

We’re anticipating creating a summit for young people to reimagine what safety looks like. One of the largest concerns that Durham Public Schools has is that they don’t have a replacement plan, and I don’t want them to make a replacement plan without the input of the students that they’re serving. So, right now, Elijah King and I are collaborating on possibly making a youth summit. So, watch out for that happening. 

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