About sixty students from St. Paul’s Central High School walked out of their classes Wednesday (Feb. 26) as a statement against the “school-to-prison pipeline.” The students joined more than 100 protesters — many of them college students and other community members — who gathered outside the school before marching to the nearby St. Paul Reformation Lutheran Church for a program-cum-protest. Guests included Nekima Levy-Pounds, a law professor from the University of St. Thomas, the rapper Lioness and others who spoke out against a system they charged leads children of color down the school to prison pipeline.
The action was organized by the NAACP’s St. Paul Youth and Collegiate Branch with leader Dua Saleh, a graduate from Central High School and currently a student at Augsburg College. “We are protesting the funneling of youth into prison systems,” Saleh said, as well as the “criminalization, institutionalization and stigmatization of youth of color and low income youth.”
According to Saleh, schools will suspend kids of color for getting into a fight instead of sending them to a counselor or speaking to them with their parents. “That’s problematic because suspensions actually lead kids to being more likely to be homeless at some point in their life or being incarcerated at some point in their life. They’re also more likely to be expelled.”
When Saleh was a student at Central, she was one of the “good” Black kids, she said. “That’s because they had a different understanding of my blackness in comparison to other people’s blackness,” due to the fact that she was in AP and IB classes and was articulate. “I guess so they interpret my blackness in a different way than they interpret other peoples’ blackness.”
Still, she saw how other youth of color and low-income youth “were stigmatized by teachers.” “They were sent out by teachers for tapping their pencils because that was a disruption for some reason. They were sent out by teachers for speaking to each other because they didn’t know how to diffuse situations. It was problematic, and I saw it, and maybe I wasn’t affected by it directly, but I saw people and I know people who were suspended and who are now in jail as a result of this systematic oppression. So that’s how I’m affected by it.”
Some of the demands of the protesters included a moratorium on suspensions, administrative transfers, expulsions and arrests, racial profiling and infringing on youth culture (such as banning certain clothes or hair styles associated with hip-hop culture), an annual release of data of disciplinary actions, training for teachers and administrators and getting rid of law officers in the schools.
According to Saleh, the walk-out by Central High students was a separate action from the rally and march, though the rally began in front of the school.
One Central student, Ahmed Hussein, said he often gets stopped in the hallways and asked for a pass, whereas his friends aren’t stopped. Outside of school, he’s experienced similar racial profiling, once being stopped by the cops as he and his friends were walking to a mosque.
Maya Jones, another Central student, joined the walk-out because she’s part of the Truancy Intervention Program (TIP). Jones feels she was unfairly put into the program when she was absent while she was ill, and said many of the people in the program are African-American or Latino. “If you miss more than seven days that are unexcused, you can either be put in Juvie (Juvenile court) or, I was put on probation,” she said. Jones, who was told she had depression, which she said she doesn’t have, had to sign a contract “or else they would have taken further measures and put me into a group home,” she said.
While some of Jones’s friends were worried about being disciplined for walking out, Jones said she wasn’t bothered. “This is a very important issue to me, so if I do get disciplined, they’re just providing more reason as to why we’re having the walkout.”
After gathering at Central High School, the protesters marched to St. Paul Reformation Lutheran Church, where there were speakers as well as performing artists.
Levy-Pounds, a law professor at the University of St. Thomas who has led an annual conference for the past six years at St. Thomas around similar issues, said the action at Central High School “takes the theoretical knowledge and brings it down to the grassroots level.” The protest “sends a message to the (school) district that the community is serious about stopping the criminalizing of young people and particularly young black men.”
In a speech, Levy-Pounds said the community is tired of being treated like second-class citizens. “They’re supposed to be able to go to school, to get an education, instead of always having to worry about incarceration. It’s completely unacceptable,” Levy-Pounds said. “And I’m wondering what kind of community have we become where this becomes the status quo, where it becomes normal for us to see our kids led away from school in handcuffs, and yet we want to tell them we want you to be something in life and to be successful, but we’re sending them a double message.”
Young kids of color “need to have access to opportunity, and education and be able to provide for their families and their communities,” said Levy-Pounds. “I will not accept them continuing to cycle in and out of these systems and being treated like they’re trash. Well, let me tell you, they are somebody to God. I don’t care what they look like, how long their pants are, what color they got on, what kind of English they speak — they are somebody to the Almighty God and that means they need to be somebody to us, because they are our brothers and sisters.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Dua Saleh, president of the NAACP St. Paul Youth and Collegiate Branch.