Social Justice Activists Make Waves At Capitol on School, Homeless Issues

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Bill Sorem

Advocates for social justice made waves at the State Capitol on Thursday, pushing to end racial disparities in school suspensions and to address the problem of homelessness in Minnesota. The day of social activism began with a coalition of African-American and religious leaders calling for an end to school suspensions and police officers in schools; later, advocates for the homeless asked the legislature to pass a $100 million bonding bill to prevent homelessness.

In the morning, civil rights leaders and social justice activists from the faith community gathered at the State Office Building to call for a moratorium on school suspensions and a separation of the criminal justice system with the education system by removing police officers from schools. Organized by ISAIAH, a non-profit coalition of 100 congregations from various faith traditions working on social justice issues, the press conference was in response to numbers provided by the Minnesota Department of Education revealing that 60 percent of the almost 50,000 Minnesota students who were suspended in 2011-2012 were children of color, though students of color only make up 30 percent of the school population.

“We are in the midst of a crisis,” said Rev. Paul Slack, President of ISAIAH. “We need to unchain our children. We need to release them and stop criminalizing them and hold them up as the sacred people, the children of God as they are.”

Among the speakers was Towanna Williams, a parent of two children who attend school in the Robbinsdale School District. Her son Malique, a 6th grader who is 12 years old, has compulsive behaviors and is currently in an EBD classroom setting, which is mainly populated with African-American children. “Malique has been suspended three times, from September to December, and when he gets suspended, he’s not really told why he’s suspended, so he gets really confused about that,” Williams said.

Once this year, her son was sent to the principal’s office for hitting another child. “When I got up to the school, I was brought into the principal’s office where I found my son hiding underneath the desk crying,” Williams said. “And I asked him ‘Why I are you crying?’ And he says, ‘Because they’re sending me home because I hit a friend.’ And I said ‘Why would you hit a friend?’ And he said- ‘Well I wouldn’t hurt him because he’s my friend.’ But he was still sent home but he didn’t understand why.”

Williams talked to the principal and the police liaison, who both told her that her child wasn’t a problem, but still they couldn’t have a kid hitting other school children. “I think that it is time for us to make a change,” Williams said.

Lyndel Owens, a reading specialist teacher, said that she has witnessed young children being wrestled to the ground and physically restrained due to nonviolent infractions. She has also seen young African-American children from the ages of 5-11 expelled and suspended. Finally, she told the story of a former student, who was nine years old and had recently moved to Minnesota. “I got to know him well and was impressed by his patience, his attentiveness and especially his intelligence,” she said. “Yet, within four months he was antagonized out of the classroom and suspended long-term because of his behavior. In truth his behavior was no different from his peers, though his race was. I witnessed for months him being targeted and disproportionately redirected for behaviors that were commonplace within his classroom, and most disturbingly, viewed with an attitude of suspicion that fed into scrutiny. In short, his behavior was a product of the overt targeting that happened to him within the classroom, a painful condition that became his norm.”

Rev. Dr. Earl Miller, From Progressive Baptist Church, outlined the plan to reduce discipline disparities. The plan includes raising awareness about the issue, encouraging schools to pass moratoriums on suspensions, remove police from schools and separating the criminal justice and education systems and finally follow the U.S. Federal guidelines on school discipline.

Later, Rev. Paul Slack clarified how things would be different if schools followed the federal guidelines:

“Instead of writing people up and giving them tickets when they’re truant, do something simple like help them be in school instead of kicking them further out of school, and then getting them stuck in the criminal justice system for the rest of their lives,” he said. “Let’s hire more school counselors, more psychologists, instead of more (police) officers. Instead of calling the police when someone’s loud walking down the hallway, why don’t we call the principal? Where do you need a police officer to correct a seven-year-old?”

Help For The Homeless

Later Thursday, Liz Kuoppala, executive director of Minnesota Coalition for the Homeless, along with Rep. Alice Hausman (DFL-St. Paul) spoke at a press conference outlining a $100 million bonding bill Kuoppala hopes to see passed this year.

The bill, which has bipartisan support, is modeled after a successful campaign in Utah that has virtually eliminated homelessness. It would provide for 5,000 housing units across the state, according to Kuoppala.

“There’s growing recognition that with better housing stability, kids do better at school, workers do better at work,” she said. “Housing stability makes good economic sense. There’s nothing controversial about it.”

According to Hausman, advodcates asked for $50 million in a bill last year, which didn’t pass, so they’re asking for $100 million this year. “It’s unprecedented but it makes good economic sense,” Hausman said, noting that half of the people who are homeless are under the age of 20.

Research from the University of Minnesota has found that homeless children, by the time they are in 5th grade, achieve only as much as a 2nd grader with stable housing. “We have billions invested in education,” Hausman said. “This is a small investment that would ensure those billions would be better spent.”

Of the $100 million asked for in the bill, $20 million would go toward traditional public housing and $80 million would go to the Minnesota Finance Agency, which would leverage that funding with nonprofits and private dollars.

Watch Video of The Press Conference Calling For Help For The Homeless:

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Sheila Regan

Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis-based journalist. She's a regular contributor to The UpTake, and also contributes to TC Daily Planet and City Pages. Her work can also be found at mnartists, VitaMN, Classical MPR and in other local publications.

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