The right to an education is the bedrock of any free and prosperous community. It is vital for the pursuit of happiness, wholeness and safety. A proper education can lead to greater knowledge, a better career, and ultimately, a more rewarding and fulfilling life.
It is this path that our Board supports and what most families think of when sending their children to the classroom every day. However, there is another darker, more devastating course that has continued to plague schools, students, and communities: the school-to-prison pipeline.
In Waterbury, this school-to-prison pipeline is notorious and persistent. It has become the marker of the status quo for education in the Brass City, but has been exaserbated by the pandemic and extreme over-policing in schools. According to a recent report by the State of Connecticut Judicial Branch, Waterbury was a runaway leader in school-based arrests across the state from August 2021 to June 2022 with over 30 percent of arrests in schools coming from our city schools.
Waterbury finished first in arrests by municipality, with 276 student arrests, nearly 180 more than the next closest city, and two of the city’s five high schools finishing in the top 10 of arrests based on schools.
As members of the Executive Board for the Waterbury-based Radical Advocates for Cross-Cultural Education (RACCE), an education advocacy and youth organizing group that directly combats injustices including the school-to-prison pipeline, these statistics, as startling as they might be, are only a prelude to the darkness that school policing spreads throughout our city.
The focus for students should be on their classes, building friendships, and creating a community within their schools that is loving, affirming, and intellectually challenging. However, many students in Waterbury have to be wary of being arrested or surveilled by police when they’re simply going to school to learn. An ideal learning environment is one where all students are welcomed and cared for, instead of being seen as a threat. From our own personal experiences, and the experiences of those after us, our schools are spaces where punitive public safety and school discipline practices lead to arrests and not success.
We are advocating for more student-centered support structures, but these supports must be culturally and socially responsive. For some students, an added emphasis needs to be on their mental health and their well being. The current structure feels very dismissive, like the student’s future and character are not important enough to address in a healthy manner when an armed officer is a call away.
Waterbury students, especially Black or Latinx students, are often perceived to be dangerous and worthy of a police or security-like response. The reality is these young folks have very complex and dynamic emotions that often require credible community-based messengers or clinicians to guide them through difficult moments in school.
RACCE works to help mend and lower the chances of such high arrest numbers through community-building and by providing resources that meet students’ needs. But real justice needs to focus on the root of the problem.
The goal is to look at the effects of more resources and focus on student’s mental health with qualified counselors and administrators that can concentrate on their well-being.
That is why RACCE, in collaboration with many social justice organizations across the state, are fighting for legislation that would redefine school resource officers (SROs) in schools. The onus must shift to prioritizing students’ well being and hold accountable the archaic and punitive practices that have been popular for so long.
It is up to the leadership of the city-based educators, and school administrators to shift their focus and truly look at building a community that supports students and their educational future over sending them down the hall in handcuffs.
Ty Fernandes Wrenn and Jyrel Hawk are members of the Executive Board of RACCE/Waterbury.