Community Activists Score Victory; Milwaukee School Board Changes Policy Requiring Police Involvement in Discipline

    Members of LIT protest outside the MPS Board meeting Thursday. Photo via Facebook.

    Youth leaders and community activists scored a major victory last week in their opposition to the schools-to-prison pipeline that many feel exists in the Milwaukee Public School system.

    At a meeting on Thursday in Milwaukee, the MPS Board of Directors struck language from discipline reforms that would mandate schools to involve the police in situations with students where “criminal activity is suspected.”

    The phrasing of that measure drew criticism from students and community organizers alike, who said that it would up the ante on already contentious relations between students and police who occupy Milwaukee Public Schools.

    The MPS  has been forced to change disciplinary policies after the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found that the school system in Milwaukee suspends and expels black students at a disproportionately high rate.

    Leading up to the board meeting, Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT), a Milwaukee-based youth organization, fought hard to have language removed that would basically have allowed police to become involved in student matters on the whims and suspicions of various faculty or complaints. Members of LIT, along with other youth leaders, called for a No vote on the language as well as more student input to reform discipline policies.

    “We need to stop calling the police on black children in their own schools,” said Joya Headley, a youth leader with LIT before the board meeting. “Black students are unfairly suspected all the time and already experience harsher discipline. Involving police is the problem, not the answer.”

    Headley is a Senior at the Milwaukee School of Languages. Black students have indeed been the subject of more frequent and harsh discipline in Milwaukee Public Schools.  The three year investigation of Milwaukee schools by the Office for Civil Rights found that the MPS’ handling of discipline for Black students was in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1962 that prohibits educational discrimination based on race.

    “So far, MPS has failed to propose a comprehensive reform package that includes an overhaul of their policies, implementation of restorative practices, training for staff on implicit bias, trauma informed treatment for students, or additional staffing to lower classroom size,” said Dakota Hall, LIT’s Executive Director. “While the revision made last night will have a huge impact on the daily lives of students, it merely prevented the policy from getting worse than it started. It did not put the district on a path to ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

    The Office of Civil Rights report said that an expulsion from school doubles the likelihood that a student will drop out of school entirely as well as become more likely to turn to a life of crime or become incarcerated. Black students accounted for 87 percent of all expulsions in the Milwaukee Public School District in 2017.

    Because of the investigation, the Milwaukee Public School system has been able to reach an agreement with the Department of Education to make sure that the same disciplinary measures are applied to all students regardless of race.

    The language of one of the measures read in its entirety this way: “the school administrator shall involve the police department for any instance in which criminal activity is suspected.”

    In addition to the concept that Black and Brown students are more likely to be suspected of criminal activity, that broad language was feared by some to also be applicable to undocumented students who seemed “suspicious”, like they might not be legals.

    Keith Posley, the new MPS superintendent never allowed that language to be in the final draft of the policy, striking that line and adopting the rest of the policy without it.

    “This was an important step, and we thank Superintendent Posley for proposing this change and the Board of School Directors for raising their concerns about the provision after hearing from the young people of LIT,” Hall said. “While this is a step in the right direction, there is a lot of work left to do. We believe MPS has the best intention to work with us, after several Board members gave credit to LIT for catching this dangerous policy and other members spoke about the need to include young people in this process.”