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Where Are the Student Voices in the Gun Control Debate?

In the wake of Newtown, students are upping the fight against racial injustice in school discipline.

Photo Credit: Sascha Burkard |


I grew up in Oxford, Connecticut, a town over from Newtown. Both are solidly white and (at a minimum) middle class, with white, middle-class politics to boot. Democrats and Republicans shake hands after yelling at each other. Democrats vote for Republicans if they’re known to be respectable people around town. There are no police review boards; the police are who you call when you accidentally set off your house alarm. And, in one of America’s most racially balkanized states, there’s little talk of racial injustice. For residents of Connecticut’s white getaways, society is, by default, post-racial. 

In the wake of the Newtown massacre, municipalities far away, and far different, from Newtown are now ramping up their school police forces and security checks. They have an ally in President Obama, whose 23 gun control proposals include added funding for “school resource officers”—that is, police.

As a result, students of color across the country are bracing for the dependably discriminatory impact of heightened school security. Since the advent of zero-tolerance policies during the Reagan-era war on drugs, suspension rates have gone up disproportionately for blacks, Latinos and Native Americans. Black students are now three times as likely as white students to get suspended, despite scant evidence of greater suspension-worthy infraction. The policies undergirding this discrimination are twofold: first, codes of conduct with heavy penalties for nonviolent incidents like being late, talking back, violating dress codes, or, as Daniel Denvir writes at Vice, farting; second, more school police to enforce them—a 38 percent national increase from 1997 to 2007.

Treating students of color purely as victims, though, misses half the story. In a movement uniting large advocacy organizations like the Advancement Project with a vast array of student and community groups, the zero-tolerance years have also been an era of collective resistance.

Through organizing and action research, activists have worked to roll back discriminatory policies in schools across the country. In Denver, Padres y Jóvenes Unidos won a six-year fight in 2008 to limit police intervention in city schools and revise the discipline code—overturning post-Columbine policy that saw a 71 percent increase in district referrals to law enforcement from 2000 to 2004. Through the work of groups like Chicago’s Kenwood Oakland Community Organization and Los Angeles’s CADRE, in recent years big cities across the country have implemented restorative justice practices—often referred to as “positive behavior and intervention supports”—like peer juries and anti-punitive teacher training. And last month, some 400 activists descended on Capitol Hill for the first-ever Senate hearing on ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

Now, post-Newtown, these same groups are on the march against further youth criminalization.

The LAPD’s Perfect Attendance

On December 21, students and allies from LA’s Community Rights Campaign held a vigil for the Newtown victims—while also warning policy-makers of the risks of fear-driven reaction. After the shootings, the LAPD announced that it would be working with the school district to staff schools with more cops, adding to the largest school police force in the country. Meanwhile, California Senator Barbara Boxer floated a proposal to invite the National Guard into public schools and increase funding for COPS, the federal revenue stream for school police.

These policies fly in the face of positive gains for students of color in LA over the past decade. In 2007, the district passed a citywide policy requiring schools to adopt proactive mediation practices and decrease reliance on exclusionary punishment like class removal and suspension. More recently, policy-makers heeded a demand by community groups not to use the city’s “truancy ticketing” practice to fine students for being late to school.