Students — most from Elizabeth High School — rallied outside the Statehouse in Trenton on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021, in support of two bills that would increase transparency around school security and discipline. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
Awwal Lawal’s high school has only three guidance counselors for 1,200 students, no air conditioning in most areas, and school meals so meager students sometimes leave their lunch break hungry.
But the district spends plenty of money on security, he said.
“I used to think it was normal to have guards in schools,” said Lawal, 17, a junior at Elizabeth High School. “I used to think that every student in New Jersey walked through a metal detector every morning, and then a guard scanned them with a metal wand.”
Lawal and about 20 other high schoolers trekked to Trenton Monday to demand lawmakers act on two stalled bills that would require schools to publicly disclose school security and discipline data.
Such information would highlight the disproportionate discipline students of color endure and over-policing in their schools, supporters say. They hope this will inspire administrators to redirect more money to “education, not incarceration,” as students chanted at an afternoon rally.
“The over-policing and lack of investment in majority Black and brown schools in New Jersey has funneled Black and brown young people into the school-to-prison pipeline at significantly higher rates than white students,” said Giovanna Castenada of Make the Road New Jersey, the grassroots group that organized the rally.
Schools should prioritize mental health to help students recovering from trauma relating to the pandemic, the loss of loved ones, hate crimes, and police brutality, among other things, students said.
“This is not about us not wanting security. It’s about where our priorities are at,” said Elizabeth senior Danna Chacon, 18. “Especially after the pandemic, we should really focus on students’ mental health.”
Both bills were introduced last year.
Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex) introduced a bill that would require schools to report school-level data on school discipline broken down by race and the state Department of Education to compile those reports in a publicly accessible database on its website.
Schools would have to report demographic information for students who get suspended, expelled, reported to law enforcement, or arrested. Schools also would have to report uses of physical restraint or seclusion techniques. That bill passed in the Senate but awaits an Assembly vote.
A second bill introduced by Sen. Troy Singleton (D-Burlington) would require school report cards to include information on how many “school safety specialists” and mental health professionals a school employs, along with the ratio of students to safety specialists and to mental health professionals.
Lawmakers in June advanced the bill out of the Assembly’s Education Committee but “watered down” its impact, students complained, by removing a requirement that schools divulge how many security guards and police are present in each school, along with the ratio of students to guards/police.
Students on Monday demanded legislators restore the bill to its original language.
A 2019 report by the American Civil Liberties Union found schools with police reported 3.5 times as many arrests as those without police. Black students were disproportionately detained.
“Instead of spending money on security guards that escalate situations, schools should spend it on things we really need,” said Cristiana DeSousa, 17, an Elizabeth senior.
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