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This is the second story in a two-part series about Wake County students organizing against police brutality. Read part one here.
Less than a week after Black Lives Matter protesters toppled a confederate statue in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Wake County Black Student Coalition marched down Fayetteville Street. It was the first protest many of them had ever attended. But after unanswered emails and fruitless conversations with school board members, they knew it was the only way their primary demand—to get police out of their schools—would get attention.
"It felt so good to finally have the opportunity to have my voice heard and for people to finally hear my experience in class being in school," then-17-year-old Victoria Smith said of the protests and the news interviews that followed.
"Because, I'm gonna be honest, like, being a Black student can get really lonely at times."
Like students across the country, Smith and her classmate Yakob Lemma were trying their best to stay focused on school work and remain safe as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down their in-person schooling. But in May, activated by footage of George Floyd's violent death at the hands of the police and the protests that flooded the nation soon after, the two were painfully reminded of the impact that School Resource Officers (SROs) had on their lives in school, especially for Black and brown students.
Smith and Lemma are classmates at Enloe High School, a high-performing magnet known for its racial and socioeconomic diversity, where students have a storied history of brutal attacks and unjust discipline measures at the hands of SROs and other security and teaching staff.
The two are founding members—along with fellow students Jasmin Benas, Regan Razon, Gracie Staser, and Sanga Bull—of the Wake County Black Student Coalition (WCBSC). Their primary goal is to challenge the school board's long-standing memorandum of understanding with the county that keeps cops in their schools and allows for racist discipline doctrines to continue.
The battle to end the SRO program has lasted nearly as long as the program itself. Though police have been in Wake County schools for decades, in 2009 the Wake County Sheriff's office partnered with the Wake County Public School System to formalize a school-policing program. Just one year later, the first of several complaints against the school system was sent to the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. The complaints concerned, among other things, a trend of discriminatory practices in disciplinary measures used against Black and brown students, as well multiple instances of excessive force used against disabled and marginalized students.
See also: How the criminal justice system criminalizes learning disabilities in Texas public schools
"While I love my school so much, it's one of the most segregated schools in Wake County," Smith said. "I'm usually one of the only Black kids in my AP classes, and I feel like I have to validate my presence in the class. There's always Being a Black student is just a lot harder than people give us credit for."
She called Lemma with the idea of creating a student coalition to rally around several issues that impacted Black and brown students in Wake County, including the presence of SROs.
Eventually, the campaign grew to encompass more popular student demands: Staff accountability for discriminatory practices, Black student unions (or WCBSC chapters) in every school, a safe and organized system for reporting sexual harassment, and the integration of Black and Indigenous histories in all curricula.
"We included our friends Jasmin and Gracie (who had both already graduated), and Reagan and Sanga, and decided to start what became the WCBSC," Smith said.
They started by creating a social media account to reach their friends and peers across the county, making graphics to educate them on the issues, as well beginning to discuss core values, a list of demands, and actionable steps.
Soon after the coalition was formed, they reached out to Letha Muhammed, an activist-parent of three children in Wake County schools, and her organization the Education Justice Alliance (EJA) for support and direction. Muhammed has been working with parents of Black and brown students in the school system since 2005 to help combat discrimination, excessive discipline, and negligence of children's academic needs by school administrators.
Tyler Whittenberg, Chief Counsel for the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ), immediately linked up with the groups too as they were developing their #CounselorsNotCops campaign.
"Myself and Letha came alongside the WCBSC and helped them craft a proposal, but it was one hundred percent written by the students," Whittenberg said. "And we wanted to encompass the other four demands of the Wake County Black Student Coalition, because it's not just about policing, but it really is about what the schools need to do to make students of color feel safe and supported."
'Were you on the right side of history?'
That memorandum of understanding between police and the school board is what spells out exactly what local officers or deputies can or can't do when interacting with students at school, and it's been a topic of debate every three years since the program started in 2009. In 2019, EJA petitioned the school board to consider Peacebuilders, a conflict resolution program created in 1994 by former Long Beach, California teacher Michelle Molina. The goal of the Peacebuilders program is to replace SROs with "intervention workers."
Last year, the three organizations held meetings with a group of principals to share their concerns and proposed solutions for the safety and discrimination issues they addressed. The student-led group explained their proposed plan to transform the school system's punitive disciplinary system by implementing the following:
- Abolition of SROs in all Wake County Schools
- Invest the funds, previously used to police students, and additional funding into the implementation of the Peacebuilder Program, helping students, parents, and community members at each school coordinate the hiring, training, and assignment of paid Peacebuilders.
- Enlist the support of local colleges and universities in assessing the program's impact on school climate, discipline disparities, school-based arrests, and community engagement.
- Assist parents, students, and community members with making adjustments to their school's Peacebuilder Program based on assessments of the program's overall impact.
Last year, the Wake County Black Student Coalition—with the support of Education Justice Alliance, the ACLU, and the Southern Coalition for Social Justice's Youth Project, created a proposal for the school system to replace the use of SROs with the nationally-acclaimed Peacebuilders program. The 16-page proposal illustrates that the SRO program is "costly, ineffective, and harmful to students and school climate."
"With Peacebuilders, teachers and support staff would be trained to create a positive school climate by facilitating safe, nonjudgmental, transformative justice circles that help students learn social and emotional skills, understand how their behavior affects others, and take responsibility for their actions."
The Peacebuilders program was developed by teachers, and it's science-backed techniques have had positive results in schools across the country. As stated in WCBSC's proposal, after Peacebuilders was implemented for 16 weeks at an Oakland middle school, their suspension rate went down by 75 percent, and expulsion and violent fights were reduced to zero.
They sent emails to Wake County School Board members leading up to the June 16 meeting that would determine whether the current memorandum of understanding would be upheld, changed, or abolished, but they rarely heard back.
A week after the Minneapolis School Board terminated the school system's contract with the city's police force on June 2, EJA, SCSJ, and members of the WCBSC created a petition demanding that the Wake County School System suspend its contracts with local law enforcement and remove SROs from public schools for good.
By the time Wake County convened to review the SRO program, there were 2,500 signatures. One resident wrote in their submission for the board meetings public comments section:
"Instead of paying for school police officers, Wake County Public Schools should reallocate funds toward preventive programs and alternatives to criminalization. This includes fully-staffed, schoolwide restorative justice initiatives; community Peacebuilders; social workers; physical and mental health care professionals; other resources to support families and community members as determined by them."
As the board members debated over the best decision to make on June 16, it became clear they had not kept their promise from three years prior.
"You know, we pushed them to meet with the community two years ago, with parents and students to hear their concerns and what they needed to see around the memorandum of understanding," Muhammed recalled. "And at that time, board members promised that the next go around they would create real space for the community to be engaged. But they didn't do it."
With the uncertainty of the pandemic, the Wake County School Board said that they would possibly consider a one-year extension memorandum of understanding instead of the typical three. This was an attempt to give the Board more time to engage community stakeholders on a longer-term agreement in 2021.
But some board members felt that 2020 was no time to change the SRO policy.
"I know we hear from the advocacy groups, but their voices are not in the popular sector," said board member Roxie Cash. She said that she could not support taking away SROs from principals without providing staff to replace them, despite little research into the effect SROs have had on crime in schools. (What scholarship does exist shows that there has been no effect at all.)
Board member Chris Haggarty, however, expressed frustration with the Board's lack of preparedness for the impending vote. "We talked about truly engaging the community in this discussion, and we put it off. We have had no board discussion. " Other board members commented on not having enough information about how the administration measures the effectiveness of the SRO program and how much it costs the county.
See also: Hope in the rural South—Black students combat segregation, poverty and dwindling school funding
Despite all the talk, the Board voted to implement the memorandum of understanding. But for the first time since 2009 when the program first began, it was not a unanimous decision.
"As they pushed through this memorandum of understanding, the only person who was willing to vote no was Monica Johnson Hostler, and I literally watched that board meeting that night and ended up in tears," Muhammed said.
Hostler, who has served on the school board since 2013, gave an impassioned speech before her vote, explaining the perilous position she was in not just as a Wake County School Board member, but as a community member and a Black woman (the only one on the school board) raising Black children:
"People have brought us other tools that they've asked us to implement and pilot, like Peacebuilders, and we've not done that. But, at the end of the day, this is about the children in my life who will look back on these videos and say 'Were you on the right side of history? Did you truly do everything you can to make change when we know what the data is [saying about the impact of SROs]?'"
The Wake County student body for the 2020-2021 school year will be "Blacker and Browner than it ever has before," she said, and to refuse to fully engage the impact of the SRO program is a serious issue.
'I had to go to the streets'
Two weeks after the board vote, student activists took to the streets in protest. They gained the media's attention, shared their stories, and vowed that this was not the end of their fight for abolition.
Yemma's and Smith's parents were very concerned for the safety of their children, and tried multiple times to convince them to stay home.
"I live in an African household," Yemma said, referring to his Ethiopian heritage. At one point, his mother sat him down and said in her mother language, Amharic, "Son, you know this country is very bad. You know what happens if the cops take you to, and I don't want you to be on TV."
"I promised to be as safe as I could be." Yemma explained, "It was really scary, but I had to go to the streets."
Organizing and marching in days of protests throughout the summer was an exhilarating experience for Lemma and Smith, but it was also extremely stressful, exhausting, and, at times, terrifying.
"Last summer I had to be admitted into a mental hospital because of all the trauma I endured from protesting," said Smith, who was just one week away from her 18th birthday when we talked over Zoom. "I don't think people understand like, it does something to your spirit. I was having nightmares, and it was really bad with the trauma of being tear-gassed and being pepper-sprayed and having to worry about my friends [who were being arrested]."
The media attention Smith and her friends were receiving came with it's own trepidation and fear for their safety. "Breonna Taylor was shot in her sleep, in her own home. And people are saying that her neighbor's wall got more justice than Bronna Taylor did. So the fact that I'm protesting, and I'm out here on the streets, who says that someone can just come up here and shoot me and my family and just walk away and get away with it like that?"
See also: The South Hollers 'Black Lives Matter'
"We're already on TV, I'm already seeing myself, you know, getting killed, right? We're already seeing ourselves getting killed in class? We're getting targeted and profiled in our gas stations, in our parking lots, in our parks. We can't play basketball in peace, we can't do anything in peace. And then we have to go to school, the place that's supposed to be welcoming and safe for me. I'm still getting targeted there. I'm still getting profiled out at school. Where can we go? Right? That's why we're doing what we're doing."
While the resolution has yet to be determined, the plan from activists is firm: abolition and restorative justice.
The Peacebuilders program is representative of the systemic change that the WCBSC, the SCSJ, and the EJA are hoping to achieve in Wake County schools. In the last months of 2020, the school board began the work of reviewing the efficacy and impact of the SRO program, including seeking community input regarding the presence of police in schools, as well as comparing Peacebuilders with the current restorative programs already in use across the system.
"The harm is not simply the handcuffs and the courtroom," explained Whittenberg. "Those are certainly harmful and traumatic. In order to have a truly empowering and positive educational environment, people need to feel free to learn free to be themselves. And because Black and brown people are over-policed in our neighborhoods and have been for generations, that doesn't exist when officers are present."
Smith and Lemma, now seniors, are realistic about the pace of the systems change they are working to create, but it's the idea of helping future students and young people feel safer, happier, and better-resourced in their schools keeps them in the fight. Their work is also inspiring others. Recently, the Youth Justice Project—a student-led organization based in nearby Durham—collaborated with SCSJ to form their own #LiberateToEducate campaign to advocate for, among other things, the removal of SROs from Durham County Schools.
"My foot's already out the door; I'm ready to go to college. It's too late for me to focus on fixing the system for mine and Yakob's class. But honestly, my biggest focus is that I have a little sister who's a sophomore in high school. What about her? What about her younger friends? And the kids that I babysit across the street? Like, what about them?" Smith said.
"It would break my heart to see another little Black girl have to go through what I went through in elementary school and middle school and high school. The things that I've seen and heard and the amount of racial bias that has been put against us—I would never want for even like my own future child to have to go through that."
This is the second story in a two-part series about Wake County students organizing against police brutality. Read part one here.