White Folks Facing Race: Criminal Justice Reform is Educational Equity Work

[This is part of my White Folks Facing Race series, originally written on October 31, 2019 to an email group created for community members in the Washington, DC area.]

Hi Friends!

Remember in June when we talked a lot about criminal justice reform related to the Commonwealth’s Attorney primary? Well, that vote for change isn’t confirmed until we all vote again on Tuesday, November 5. I know Parisa is running unopposed. But the work she intends to do will come with challenges and barriers. She needs to know, from day 1, that the community supports her efforts and wants criminal justice reform so that our community is safer for everyone.

Even more than that, there are connections between achievement/opportunity gaps for children of color and the school relationship with the police. Our advocacy for educational equity is directly tied to criminal justice reform:

- A recent study has linked achievement gaps with discipline disparities and that addressing one must include addressing the other.

- The 2015–2016 Civil Rights Data Collection, School and Climate Safety includes detailed information about the impact of the relationship between schools, safety, and law enforcement. I call your attention to statistics for male students, black students, and students with disabilities in particular.

- Additionally, the Legal Aid Justice Center released a report called Decriminalizing Childhood, which finds that a Virginia state law that criminalizes disorderly conduct, is disproportionately affecting students of color in public schools. At this month’s CCPTA meeting, Nancy Van Doren said that the APS School Board has submitted legislative priorities to the VA state government advocating for the decriminalization of disorderly conduct because of the way it is criminalizing normal childhood behaviors.

- Directly related to those, APS recently reviewed its Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the School Resource Officers (SROs) and found no changes to be made, but the NAACP Education Committee and others are working to encourage a more in-depth review and are advocating for changes to the agreement to clarify implementation and consistency across the county because there have been many examples of law personnel being involved in administrative discipline issues.

This is what is meant when people talk about the “school to prison pipeline.” ANY negative interaction with the justice system, for most students, but particularly students of color and students with disabilities, can permanently damage that student’s trajectory in life. This is unacceptable. Students are children. They behave in juvenile ways because that is developmentally appropriate for their age. When those behaviors are criminalized (behaviors that do not pose an active threat to anyone and involve no weapons), particularly when punishment is focused on particular groups (males, black students, students with disabilities), then we need to change the way we characterize and react to those behaviors.

Please don’t believe for a moment that disparities in education and criminal justice aren’t happening in Arlington County. They are. Human beings have biases, it’s how we navigate the world around us. However, when we are in positions of power and those biases lead to disparities in law enforcement and criminal justice, we must take active steps to counteract those biases, to become more aware of them, to make different choices. Doing so does not make us less safe. Upholding the perception of safety for one group at the expense of the actual safety of another group is white supremacy in action.

Your vote counts and your voice matters. Let’s show Parisa that Arlington County stands for everyone and that we welcome this change. As she said, safety and justice go hand in hand.

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Additional resources to share with you:

Regarding the structure of our places, housing, transportation:
- Devin Michelle Bunten writes about the differences between housing shortages and gentrification and their potential solutions.
- Richard D. Kahlenberg writes about the victims of NIMBYism and how Minneapolis addressed it.
- Benjamin Schneider writes about Tax Increment Financing (TIF), which is being used in Arlington for Amazon’s H2Q project and elsewhere, and has many pros and cons.

Regarding how we educate our children:
- Free to be Kids is a (super awesome!) clothing company that a group member told me about because of this post on their website about why they are not releasing a Thanksgiving shirt and what they have done instead. It’s remarkable and a great opportunity to educate our children in a racially and historically informed way.

Regarding how our communities interact with police officers:
- Michael Friedrick writes about how police departments face a difficult challenge in rebuilding trust in a community.
- SURJ Northern Virginia has a great resource for “Alternatives to Calling the Police.” Think about this and understand your feelings around it. Consider how heavily we (white people) are socialized to interact with and use the police and how fundamentally different a person of color’s experience is likely be with the police. This is a basic function of white supremacy and is systemic.

And, Lauren Michele Jackson writes about digital blackface: “We all need to be cognizant of what we share, how we share, and to what extent that sharing dramatizes preexisting racial formulas inherited from ‘real life.’”

EVENTS/ACTIONS:
- VOTE VOTE VOTE VOTE VOTE! Help other people VOTE! (November 5)
- The NAACP is mobilizing volunteers to get out the vote in November (less than a week away!). Please consider signing up to help.
- Brace yourselves! APS is beginning its engagement on the next elementary school boundary process in November (the process takes place in the spring). Please do your best to stay informed about this, no matter what school your child attends, because it can affect everyone and we should all be pushing for equity, whether it directly affects us or not.
- Follow the lead of Black Lives Matter fighting disinformation campaigns going into the November 2020 elections. For more context on voting rights, there’s a recent Southern Poverty Law Center post about it.
- Attend the Alexandria, Arlington, and Falls Church community meetings about the Northern Virginia Juvenile Detention Center in November.
- SURJ Northern Virginia and Fairfax County NAACP are hosting “Alternatives to Calling the Police” on November 3.

Keep engaging. Keep having tough conversations. VOTE! Keep standing up for everyone, not just yourselves. This work is for all of us.

Emily
Listen. Amplify. Follow.

Mom, Activist, Community Organizer

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