A group of student activists is about to launch a campaign to remove law enforcement from Durham Public Schools.

At the heart of the effort is the activists’ call for the removal of sheriff’s deputies who work as school resource officers (or SROs), at Durham’s 17 public schools. The new #LiberateToEducate campaign is the latest phase of youth-fueled activism calling for cops off campuses. It kicks off with a virtual town hall at 2 p.m. tomorrow.

The initiative is being organized by the student-led Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

The youth activists describe their campaign as a “coordinated effort to end the school-to-prison pipeline and achieve educational justice in Durham Public School (DPS) System,” according to a press release. “This campaign envisions a future in which students of color attend schools that lift them, not pat them down and where governmental initiatives invest in their future, not their incarceration.”

In June, the student activists called on the Board of Education to end the school-to-prison pipeline by reinvesting funds toward student support staff rather than policing. 

They believe the presence of SROs in school hallways increases the number of pupils who end up in juvenile courts and they object to their peers being charged as adults for classroom infractions and altercations.

Cultural and generational issues with SROs explain why Black male students are disproportionately impacted, Jennah Formey—a former high school-turned-N.C. Central student—told the INDY in June. She said the officers on campus are predominantly white men, and 65 percent are over the age of 50.

“If you go to school and make a mistake, it could affect the rest of your life,” Formey said. “The school is part of our community and often we don’t have a voice in what’s going on.”

The youth-driven calls for the public school system to end its contract with the county sheriff’s office became one of the key issues to emerge in Durham in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

In early June, the Youth Justice Project organized a candlelight vigil to honor Floyd that was attended by hundreds of people at the downtown district’s Corcoran Square. The vigil was followed later that month by a Black student march downtown 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.

One of the march co-organizers Aissa Dearing, now a Howard University student, said the school funding for SROs would be put to better use by hiring “more school psychologists, more guidance counselors, school nurses, therapists, and substance abuse specialists instead of members of law enforcement to create a safe school climate.”

As previously reported in the INDY, the activists’ call for Durham Public Schools to end its contract with the sheriff’s office has met formidable, albeit open-minded pushback, most notably from the Mike Lee, vice-chair of the county board of education.

During a school board work session this summer, Lee said he wanted the student activists to understand, “we hear you and we understand your cause for this action.” As a Black man, Lee has endured his own traumatic experiences at the hands of the police and said he 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, who added the board is willing to listen and engage in community conversations about alternatives. 

“In the absence of those solutions, it’s hard to imagine a time without SROs,” Lee concluded.

In their press release last week, the activists note that during the 2019-20 academic year, DPS officials spent more than $1 million for 22 SROs “to police 17 of Durham’s schools, rather than investing that money to improve the educational environment for all students, especially students of color.”

The youth activists point to research that found Black students do not misbehave at higher rates than their white peers, but are disproportionately winding up in the court system.

Black students represented 44 percent of DPS student enrollment in 2018-19, but accounted for 86 percent of school-related entries into the criminal justice system, according to the press release.

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, Black people account for about 22 percent of North Carolina’s total population, but make up 61 percent of the state’s prison population.

Youth Justice Project participants also note that in 2018, the suspension ratio for Black to White students attending DPS was 20:1, giving the school system “one of the largest disparities in North Carolina.”

The student activists describe their effort as a means “to combat and dismantle the decades-old practices that foster the school-to-prison pipeline.”

In response, their campaign has outlined “comprehensive recommendations necessary to uplift and decriminalize all Black, Latinx and LGBTQIA+ youths, so that they can receive the required education and support necessary to thrive in their full dignity.”

Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.

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