Mark Warren is a Professor of Public Policy and Public Affairs at the University of Massachusetts Boston. A sociologist and community-engaged scholar, he studies and works with community, parent and youth organizing groups seeking to promote equity and justice in education, community development and American democratic life. His special guests included Letha Muhammad (zoomed in from Raleigh, NC) who is representing Education Justice Alliance & Dignity in Schools Campaign. In addition to Jonathan Stith (zoomed in from Washington DC) representing Alliance for Education Justice & National Campaign for Police-Free Schools. Both guests spoke about their participation in Willful Defiance.
In his book Willful Defiance, Mark addresses his work and the work of others on ending the school to prison pipeline as well as zero tolerance policies in schools. The key themes in the book are: the need to willfully defy a system designed to punish, control, and criminalize; and how small, under resourced communities organized groups changed discourage, policy and practice across the country. The movement to end the school to prison pipeline started in Holmes Country, Mississippi. Locals noticed an issue of children getting suspended too often and how the suspensions lead to police confrontation. The observation lead to a movement for educational reform and to rid schools of police. Letha Muhammad stated that Willful Defiance is a book that tells the story of all the organizers of the movement. The book is grounded in the stories of the mamas, daddies, people with disabilities, and the population the system, that is rooted in colonization and white supremacy, want to throw away. In the book, you can read about how the movement to dismantle the school to prison pipeline is a diverse, inter-generational, intersectional movement that is giving a voice and trying to protect the educational rights of people from underrepresented communities. Mark spoke about his personal journey towards community engaged research and his connection to the movement through experiences he had with his daughters who are biracial and who have faced challenges in school due to their race.
Letha Muhammad is a mother and addressed a personal experience she had with her daughter (who identifies as Black and Muslim) in school. While attending a parent teacher conference. She was surprised when she only received positive comments about her daughter. Comments she knew were true about her daughter. However, she wanted to know what else the teacher could do for her daughter since she was doing well in her class. The teacher thought to give her daughter extra materials only after Letha made the comment. She spoke to us about how she had a moment of concern after the conference about whether her daughter would receive those resources if she didn't ask. She realized that the teacher would not properly supply her daughter with the advanced resources if she did not ask and that distraught her. With that in mind, it struck a passion in her to do work that gives dignity to the students that are overlooked and prevents them from being pushed away. She also spoke about the context that education is being presented to students currently in our digital age. Using technology as a means for delivering education brings upon threats to students such as surveillance, data collection, and mental health. She stated, "there is no alarm that is being rung about this crisis." However, through putting the stories of the people in Willful Defiance, the more people can see and hear the issues, and work towards protecting the children in our country.
Jonathan Stith is a father and spoke about his concern about the education system in Washington, DC public schools. He spoke about how he worked with high school students in an after school program. The program had a zero tolerance rule about the students coming in during school hours. However, students were coming into the after school facility because they had gotten suspended for irrational reasons and needed a place to go. Jonathan connected the experience he had with the high-school students to what has happened in the education system to people who are Black for years. He stated, "throughout history Black folks were fighting for education and getting pushed out." He mentioned a correlation between school suspensions and children getting in contact with police. Jonathan is an advocate for restorative justice practices in schools. Exposing adults in education to restorative justice allows them the skills they need to helps students who may display "challenging behavior." An example that Jonathan provided was how a school had a strawberry garden for students to visit instead of suspending the student. Providing students with positive resources instead of isolating or alienating them is a key theme in restorative justice practices. Jonathan believes that the book, Willful defiance, becomes a road map for community on how we can transform education.
While attending the book talk, I was moved by all of the speakers and their personal connection to the movement to dismantle the school to prison pipeline. I have previously learned about the school to prison pipeline though my graduate classes in my Elementary Inclusive Education Degree Program. One of the courses I took focused on rational approaches to challenging behavior. Through the course, I was exposed to culturally responsive teaching and restorative justice. We were exposed to how schools nationally would treat students if they displayed challenging behavior. I was shocked to see that students were not treated with love or respect when they were having a difficult time. Rather, the school would isolate the student, suspend the student, or in some drastic cases the school would call the police and have the student removed from the school in handcuffs. Learning about the school to prison pipeline was also appalling. The statistics are unfortunate. African American boys are more likely to get expelled from preschool than a child from any other race (Strauss, 2020). Preschool is the first exposure that children have to the education system in most cases. For them to be pushed out at such a young age is unacceptable. We also learned about what Jonathan Stith spoke about in regards to the connection suspended students had to police contact. The more often students are pushed out of schools, the more likely they will end up in prison. I am in full support of this movement to end the school to prison pipeline because I think it is essential that all children get a valuable education.
Please note that the Gottesman Libraries provides access to three electronic copies.