"Why am I being treated like a criminal if you don't want me to be a criminal?"
This piece is created in partnership with Represent Collaborative, a storytelling collaborative that covers issues of racial and social justice.
In June, as high school students around the country were just winding down from a school quarter unlike any other—one built out of a perfect storm of pandemic fallout and racial reckoning—the Students of Compton were just getting started. Brought together in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, this group of young activists, a mix of current students and recent graduates within the Compton Unified School District, bonded over their shared desire to enact change in their schools, namely removing armed police from campuses and reallocating funds into resources that put students first.
Though strangers when they were initially introduced by teachers—and despite having largely never met in person (thanks, COVID!)—the Students of Compton have become fast friends. These young activists range in grade and school from Demetrius Ramirez, a sophomore at Dominguez High School; Bryan Caracmo, the ASB President at Compton Early College; and Daniela Perez, a fellow senior; to Emily Sánchez; Anilu Banos; Tanya Orla; and De Anna Pitmann—recent graduates of CUSD schools and new college students. Some are undocumented, others are the first in their families to go to college. Virtually all have grown up in Compton and share a vision for a better, safer space to learn. As Banos explains it: “We were like, ‘Hey, let’s dismantle this from the inside.’”
The argument put forth by the students—and echoed by human rights organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union or ACLU—is that having armed police on campus contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline, triggers stress and anxiety in a community all too familiar with police trauma, and ultimately sends the message that students are seen as suspects warranting patrol rather than future leaders and scholars. Studies show that increased police presence in schools increases the number of middle school and high school students arrests and decreases the graduation rate. The students’ personal interactions with police over the years seem to back this up. Ty Young, a senior at Dominguez High, says that despite her reputation as “a kid who does good things,” and her standing as the Associated Student Body President, she’s been stopped, followed and questioned about three times a month since she started high school. She’s walked too close to an officer, watching as their hands move closer to their taser. “Why am I being treated like a criminal if you don’t want me to be a criminal?” she asks. A survey the students sent out asking for feedback about encounters with campus police turned up a substantial number of similar stories.
A set of slides the students put together outlines suggestions for reallocating the $2.3 million they say CUSD spends annually on school policing: hiring nurses, trauma informed counselors, and behavior interventionists; developing support for students with disabilities and special need; improving resources for LGBTQ+, homeless, and foster students; funding ethnic studies classes; increasing training for unarmed campus security; and more.
Despite all the research and consensus these students have put into their work, their demands to the school board have, so far, been ignored. (My emails to the school have also been met with radio silence). One Compton teacher, who herself attended CUSD schools from kindergarten through high school, says “I believe the reason for board members not responding to students' requests are definitely due to them being students and a small group of alumni. More parents have to be involved in order to place pressure on the district, as well as more outreach to media sources.” Though speaking on condition of anonymity, the teacher says she believes a large percentage of staff and parents support the students in their mission. “But there has to be a louder outcry for the board to move to action. It is my opinion that they do not value the opinions of our youth and young alumni, because they may feel school police are an absolute necessity, rather than focusing on the social emotional needs of students and families.”
Obviously, this school year requires no campus police, as students in CUSD are following a distance learning model during the current pandemic. And though the group is still passionately advocating to defund the police, they’re also currently fighting a new battle: CUSD teachers have been required to teach virtually from within their own classrooms, regardless of whether or not they are considered high-risk for COVID or need to homeschool their own children. The students are advocating alongside the teachers union to fight for the right for teachers to work from home. It’s a move that illustrates how multi-facete