Student activists called on the Board of Education Thursday to end the school-to-prison pipeline by reinvesting funds toward student support staff, rather than policing. The students gathered under gray skies in front of the county schools’ central office and announced a summit this summer to create alternatives to having school resource officers on campus.

The students are members of the Youth Justice Project, a student-led initiative to implement change in the county school system. They believe the presence of SROs in school hallways increases the number of pupils who end up in juvenile courts, along with their peers who are charged as adults for classroom infractions and altercations.

Aissa Dearing, one of the activists pushing for the summit, say they want their proposal to be taken seriously by the school board.

“The school board has indicated that they will not terminate their [contract with the Sheriff’s Office] unless there’s a replacement plan,” Dearing said. “So this summit will allow the primary stakeholders to come up with solutions.”

While making public their announcement Monday, the young activists issued a sole demand.

“We demand that Durham Public Schools values the input of its students,” said Dearing, who will enroll at Howard University this fall after she graduated this year from the Josephine Dobbs Clement Early College High School. 

Dearing said part of the board’s reluctance to remove SROs stems from a survey indicating crime in the classroom has gone down with cops on campus.

“But we have to consider what role do SROs truly play,” Dearing said. “Administrators, teachers, and students obviously, want a safe school climate, but what truly makes people feel safe? It doesn’t make people feel safe to be arrested, where students are graduating with criminal records. It doesn’t make people feel safe to be subdued with physical force by someone who’s armed with lethal weapons. And it doesn’t make people feel safe when they are policed in a learning environment.”

Meanwhile, Dearing noted, students often don’t have immediate access to a guidance counselor, social worker, or nurse when they need help. Instead of finding those resources,  Durham schools have chosen to invest in law enforcement solutions.

“Well, the crime rates have gone down, and the criminalization of student behavior has increased. And what we consider to be normal, teenage misbehaviors can result in a permanent record which lowers graduation rates, lowers test scores, but increases the lead to incarceration,” Dearing said. “It’s disturbing that Durham Public Schools is prioritizing SROs over supports for student health, especially in the middle of a pandemic. We are going back to school in August, and we need to act with urgency.”

YJP members told the INDY this month that its members have been calling for the removal of SROs for the past two years. They say their request—bolstered by a 2018 report from the Southern Coalition for Social Justice—has gone unheeded.

In early June, YJP organized a candlelight vigil to honor George Floyd that was attended by hundreds of people at the downtown district’s Corcoran Square. The vigil was followed by a June 13 Black Student March in the downtown district that was in concert with local Black Lives Matter protests. The student-led march included hundreds of students, teachers, parents and supporters who arrived at the county jail to dramatize their cause.

Prior to the march, Dearing wrote a petition letter that while Black students make up 45 percent of Durham’s public schools population, they account for 90 percent of school-based complaints that wind up in juvenile court.

During the press conference, Dearing said supporters of SROs on local campuses invariably ask, “but what if there is a mass shooting?”

It’s a reality Dearing has known well, raised in the era of school lockdown drills. She thinks the presence of mental health workers would be better prepared to treat and identify troubled students than armed police officers. 

“School resource officers do not prevent school shootings,” said Dearing.

The student activists are growing frustrated, and angry over the school board’s inaction.

“DPS continues to stay silent regardless of the concern coming from their very own students,” said Jay Rahim, a rising junior at the Durham School of the Arts. “During a time when Black lives are being taken from this world, the youth are fighting harder to live in a world where our lives are not guaranteed as African Americans in the United States.

Rahim said part of the misconception is that the students want to get rid of the deputies on campus without alternative safety measures and that some adults think they “will say anything and do anything just to be radical.”

“But the true meaning of defunding the police means you’re stripping them of the historical power hidden by bigotry away from the police department, while also providing more financial aid and support to Durham schools,” she added.

Christopher Fowler, who graduated this year from the Durham School of the Arts, said h part of the problem stems from mental health issues in the Black community a problem. Fowler pointed to a study by the Columbia School of Psychiatry which reported that young people between the ages of 18 and 25 who identified as Black or African American are 20 percent more likely to face mental health issues.

Elijah King said there is a “rising desire” from students and teachers alike to remove SRO’s from the schools with alternative, preventive measures. King graduated this year from Riverside High School.

“Although student resource officers are the first line of defense against foreign threats,” King said, “to the school environment they themselves pose a mental and physical threat to students, and more specifically students like me. Students of color.”

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