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Nia Arrington: Young people advocate for safe, supportive schools

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Students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., hold their hands in the air as they are evacuated by police after a shooter opened fire on the campus Feb. 14, 2018.

On Feb. 14, 2018, 17 people tragically lost their lives in a brutal massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. I was in school when it happened and saw tweets from students in the school. It was terrifying. In the days following, I was inspired by the students who turned their trauma into action.

In the wake of Betsy DeVos’ nomination as Secretary of Education, I founded the Youth Power Collective, a black-led group of young people in Pittsburgh that is now a campaign of OnePA. Those of us involved in the organization felt compelled to do something in our community to show solidarity with the Parkland students.

One week after the massacre, about 150 of my peers and I walked out of school, marched through downtown Pittsburgh and rallied in Market Square. Students shared their personal experiences with gun violence and what they believed we should do to make it stop.

A month later, we organized four buses to attend the national March for Our Lives. More than 60 students who joined us had been directly impacted by gun violence. It was beautiful to come together with students from across the country. We uplifted our voices and showed that we all want to be part of the change.

The response by young people in the aftermath of the tragedy sits in stark contrast to that of our government. While young people came together, the federal government has attempted to tear us apart. After the tragedy, President Donald Trump appointed DeVos to chair the new Federal Commision on School Safety and make recommendations. However, their process left young people out of the conversation despite us making it very clear that we wanted to be included.

In December 2018, we saw that the commission did not listen to us — at all. Instead of using the commission to truly transform the culture of our nation’s schools, DeVos and Trump initiated a direct attack on black, brown and LGBTQIA+ students, and students with disabilities. The commission ultimately provided a blueprint for arming school personnel, adding more cops and military personnel to schools, and rescinded Obama-era civil rights guidance on school discipline, which protected students like me.

When the commission used the massacre of children in Florida to rescind civil rights guidance, I knew it was no longer about school safety. The presence of police officers, guns, handcuffs and metal detectors in schools creates hostile teaching and learning environments that are reinforced by harsh, punitive and exclusionary school discipline policies. Together these practices constitute what is widely referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline.

Those in power might not listen to us, but young people have come together to share our dream for safe, supportive and inclusive schools. Youth Everywhere Rising and Resisting (YERR), a national coalition of youth-led advocacy groups like ours, created a video with our collective list of demands.

These demands have a long history, far beyond the time our collective has come together. These demands have been drawn from years of black and Latinx-led youth organizing efforts in groups all across the country that we believe will create the schools we deserve, schools in which everyone — teachers and students — is supported.

Youth demand:

• Divestment for school policing

• Comprehensive mental and emotional health services

• More guidance counselors and social workers

• Expansion of restorative justice practices

• Culturally responsive education programs

• Investments in schools and teacher

• Protection for students and families from ICE arrests

• A concrete plan to end gun and state violence

We have brought these demands to the commision, Congress and our local elected officials. Conversations about school safety and the forward vision of schools, must include us. Those most impacted by the policies, must be the ones at the table.

As a former public school student, I know what students need. As a human, I know we should respond to a school shooting with policies to support students, not criminalize us. When children are dying in the streets and hallways of their schools because of guns, we must not attack the victims but the perpetrators. In this case, our perpetrators are the elected officials who ignore their communities and defund public education programs across the nation. We see your actions and we are watching.

The many communities of revolutionary young people to which I belong to have defied odds and are living examples of the way we want our country to work. We imagine schools where students feel loved and welcomed; schools where young people don’t arrive on the bus and leave in handcuffs; schools where young people with immensely bright futures make mistakes and are met with guidance instead of pushout.

Our nation watched as we united and gave each other spaces to heal and share our narratives. Imagine a country that comes together as a community and shows one another love despite our many differences. Imagine a country that listens to their youth and follows them into the future. It just might change our lives.

Nia Arrington is co-founder of the Youth Power Collective, a campaign of OnePA in Pittsburgh.