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Black students in Milwaukee demand changes to racist discipline policies in public schools

Wisconsin

Carol Ozemhoya | OW Contributor | 4/12/2018, 9:53 a.m.
Joya Headley was in seventh grade in a Milwaukee middle school when she metal detectors were...

Joya Headley was in seventh grade in a Milwaukee middle school when she metal detectors were installed at the public school on the city’s North Side, reports the Intercept.com. Students did not receive an explanation, but they say the move on the part of the school board was consistent with the way they have been treated for years. Milwaukee has been called “the worst place to raise a Black child” in America — and there’s a somber list of statistics to back up that claim. Wisconsin has the highest Black infant mortality rate in the country, and Milwaukee’s Black babies die at twice the rate of white babies. Three quarters of Milwaukee’s Black children grow up in economically insecure households, and Black children make up 67 percent of those removed from the custody of their parents. Their futures don’t promise much better: In 2017, Milwaukee allocated nearly 47 percent of its general fund expenditures to policing — a larger fraction than many other big cities — and the city’s 53206 zip code, which is 95 percent Black, has held the grim record for the highest incarceration of bBlack men in the country. To Headley, who is Black and lives in nearby 53205, watching her school take on the appearance of a prison was upsetting but not surprising. “It made the environment feel unsafe,” she told the Intercept. “I guess many people argue that the metal detectors are there to make us safe; however, it doesn’t. It makes us more concerned on how safe our school really is, more concerned on why we can’t just walk into the building. Why do we have to be checked all the time?” Headley’s experience is shared by more than 12,000 Milwaukee students who have to walk through metal detectors to get to class every morning in 12 of the city’s public schools. But if the airport-style machines have become symbolic of a sweeping criminalization of mostly Black students in public schools across the country, in Milwaukee they are among the milder manifestations of the school-to-prison pipeline. A report released Tuesday by the Center for Popular Democracy and the Milwaukee youth group Leaders Igniting Transformation paints a much more troubling picture. According to the report, in the 2016-2017 school year, Milwaukee Public Schools suspended 10,267 students, including one of every three ninth-graders. The Milwaukee Police Department has 12 dedicated officers assigned to public schools and another six deployed on the streets to take truant students into custody. That’s in addition to 269 school safety assistants, the city’s version of school resource officers. That deployment costs Milwaukee taxpayers more than $15 million a year, but it comes at an even greater social cost. During the last school year, police were called to city schools 2,895 times. Police or school security restrained or secluded students 1,139 times. And more than 3,000 students faced citations for missing school, requiring them to show up for court dates but making no dent in the city’s truancy rates. “Milwaukee’s reliance on punitive approaches to discipline is ineffective, costly, and most troublingly, racially biased,” the report concludes. “Milwaukee Public Schools’ suspensions and expulsion rates — which disproportionately affect students of color — directly undermine impacted students’ fundamental right to education.” Indeed, as Milwaukee schools criminalize youth behavior, Black students fare the worst. Milwaukee’s Black high school students are suspended at double the national rate — and though they make up only 55 percent of the city’s student population, they accounted for nearly 85 percent of referrals to law enforcement in the 2013-2014 school year, according to the report. (Students with disabilities, who make up 20 percent of the student population, accounted for 91 percent of those restrained or put in seclusion in schools.) The suspension and expulsion of Black students reached rates so disproportionate that in 2014, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights launched an investigation into the city’s schools. The review ended in January with federal officials concluding that the schools lacked consistency in their application of discipline. Investigators found “over one hundred incidents at the district’s schools where Black students were expelled, while similarly situated white students were suspended for similar conduct.” Following the investigation, MPS reached an agreement with the feds, committing to sweeping reforms and an end to racially biased school discipline. School officials have until June to come up with a fairer school discipline code. And students like Headley, who is now a junior at Milwaukee School of Languages, want a say in that process.