It’s about time, America. In this year of turmoil and despair, we are reckoning with the epidemic that has oppressed Black people throughout history: systemic racism. In 2020, “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for Black liberation, and it echoes the cries of Black people throughout centuries demanding human rights. The “United” States has claimed to offer the American Dream to all its inhabitants, yet education, one of its most important facets, has been denied to Black people for generations. As Black students, we’ve been pushed out of education, affecting the way we learn, earn, and yearn for acceptance in this country. 

Liberation in education is not a new concept. We’ve seen it debated, rejected, and somewhat accepted in efforts to integrate schools during the Civil Rights era. Despite the generational effort to liberate Black students, we are still subject to myriad barriers that block us from a quality education. White and Black students misbehave at similar rates, but in North Carolina, roughly 10 Black youth were incarcerated for every white youth in 2017, according to U.S. Justice Department data. And in Durham Public Schools (DPS) during the 2018-2019 academic year, Black students comprised 86 percent of youth who found themselves on the receiving end of school-based complaints to the justice system, despite representing 44 percent of DPS enrollment, according to DPS data compiled by the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Not a single white student received a school-based complaint in the same year. This environment of racist policing caused one Black DPS student to say, “I believe my safety is not being put first when law enforcement officers are placed in schools, because they specifically target students that look like me.”

Racial disparities are fueled by oppressive forces like racial profiling, scarce mental health resources, and academic tracking that funnels students of color into less academically challenging courses. By putting the focus back on students and giving them mental health spaces, easy access to opportunities and resources, better restorative justice programs, and a manageable workload, we could help create an equitable school environment. As Malcolm X once said, “Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” We must reform the education of our nation to secure Black students’ liberation. 

The prejudicial foundation of the education system is impeding upon Black success. Understanding the value of a great education, we at the Youth Justice Project at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice have started the #LiberateToEducate plan. This plan addresses educational barriers by demanding police-free schools, alternatives to harmful school discipline, student self-determination in course selection, and culturally relevant curriculum, as well as mental health spaces and safe spaces for marginalized students.

In order to systematically dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline in DPS, we need the support of elected officials and the community. Join our movement by signing our petition and telling Durham school board members they must #LiberateToEducate. No Black student in DPS should fear physical abuse by a police officer while having no mental health support. DPS should be a place where all Black students are free to pursue the American Dream. 

This op-ed was written by members of the Youth Justice Project of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice.

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