Two Durham community groups will host a virtual town hall this week to discuss strategies to  eliminate public school policies and practices that take Black and Brown students out of their classrooms and push them into jail cells.

The topic, “Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline,” will be the centerpiece of a discussion Wednesday moderated by members of the Youth Justice Project and the People’s Alliance.

The town hall hosts define the school-to-prison pipeline as a “system of policies and practices that push students, especially students of color, out of school and into the juvenile and adult criminal systems.” 

Accordingly, town hall members will focus on diminishing the pipeline’s disproportionate impact on students of color at Durham Public Schools. During the 2018-19 academic year, Black students made up 44 percent of DPS enrollment but accounted for over 76 percent of short-term suspensions and 86 percent of all school-related entries into the criminal justice system.

The town hall’s aim is to engage the broader community in a discussion about the YJP and People’s Alliance “strategies for action that address, raise awareness, and affect change,” according to a press statement.

“The Youth Steering Committee students have taken charge of leading the Youth Justice Project’s efforts. The students are not only aware of the harmful nature of the school-to-prison pipeline, but they have also educated themselves on proven solutions, highlighted in their policy platform,” Marcus Pollard, counsel for justice system reform with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice said in the statement.

 “The People’s Alliance has been and will be instrumental in broadening the student’s base, voice and support as they move toward a more liberated school environment. Our collaboration with the People’s Alliance for the upcoming town hall will hopefully be the first of many collaborations between our students and their organizers.”

 The Youth Justice Project, through the support of the SCSJ, has been addressing the issue of criminalizing student behavior in public schools in recent years.

Student leaders moved to the forefront of the public arena following the death of George Floyd last year, when they held a downtown vigil in his honor. The students later held a Black Student March to protest police presence in public schools after creating a petition calling on the Board of Education to end its contract with the Sheriff’s Department. 

Adult leaders have been mindful of the YJP leaders’ concerns. Days before the march, then-Durham Board of Education chair Mike Lee said its members heard and understood the students’ cause.

Lee, during a school board meeting noted that, as a Black man, he had endured his own traumatic experiences at the hands of the police and worries for his three daughters.

“Over the past four years, the schools have worked to reduce the number of engagements SROs have with students,” Lee said. “The board is willing to listen and plans are underway for a forum to deepen the conversation and engage the community.” 

The town hall will include a panel of community organizers, school board members, educators and students “to have an open and honest discussion on issues impacting the education and mental health of students in DPS, especially students of color,” according to the release.

Among the issues up for discussion Wednesday is a policy platform, #LiberateToEducate, developed by eight DPS high school students.

The platform lists five demands “to end discriminatory practices” that shuttle students of color into the school-to-prison pipeline, while improving “student social and emotional behavioral functioning.” 

The town hall will start at 6 p.m. To register, click here

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