It was sunny and hot the afternoon of July 31, the kind of weather that Seattleites wait all year for but the coronavirus has largely ruined. That didn’t stop more than 100 people from gathering in the plaza of the Rainier Beach Community Center — masked and socially distant — to support a push to reimagine schooling in support of Black students.
Students, educators, parents and supporters came together to demand changes in public instruction and investment in schools, capitalizing on the momentum of the movement to defund the Seattle Police Department.
The Friday event was co-sponsored by King County Equity Now, which is one of the leaders of the defunding effort.
Reforming education is critical to the health and well-being of students of color, who are often failed by the existing educational system, said Katrina Johnson, the cousin of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant mother of four who was shot and killed by Seattle police officers in 2017.
“They are our future, and without them, we are nothing,” Johnson said.
The movement to change the schools is inextricably linked to police defunding because it is the first step in the “school-to-prison pipeline,” a phrase used to describe the early criminalization of young people through school discipline policies that disproportionately impact Black and Brown students.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, Black students made up 42.1 percent of in-school suspensions and 38.4 percent of out-of-school suspensions despite being only 15.9 percent of district enrollment in 2015.
After the death of George Floyd, Seattle Public Schools ended its relationship with the Seattle Police Department, removing four “school emphasis officers” from its campuses for the next year.
“While the focus of the School Emphasis Officers has been to build relationships and provide assistance to youth in crisis, the unintended consequence of their presence in our buildings could bring more distress to our young people,” Superintendent Denise Juneau wrote in June.
Criticism of protesters has focused on an alleged “lack of a plan,” said Jesse Hagopian, a teacher and activist who has been fighting to make the education system work for students of color and who spoke at the event. This time, the demands are very clear.
“With our 10 education demands, nobody has any excuse anymore that there wasn’t a plan for what to do with the money,” Hagopian told Real Change. “It is a very clear set of demands, and I think they are very powerful and would be transformative in the lives of our youth.”
Supporters have 10 interrelated demands for the city, county and district, including community schools with health care and emotional support for students and community members; Black and ethnic studies programs; more Black teachers; anti-racist training for staff and faculty; accountability for staff and faculty who physically abuse students; student representation on the school board; housing for homeless students; and community control of education and school investment.
The money to enact these changes could come from savings in public safety budgets from the city and county, organizers said, although the majority of funding in the schools comes from the state.
Sheets of poster board — one for each demand — were available on concrete blocks for people to sign.
“It’s time to redefine what public safety is,” Hagopian told the crowd, asserting that it was not police in schools.
One by one, speakers came to the podium to describe their experiences in schools or those of their children.
Speeches were interspersed with performances, including a local cheer squad, two young boys who rapped an original song called “Police get off my block” and an 8-year-old girl who sang her “Corona Rock.”
Continuing with the status quo is damaging to all students, but particularly students of color, said Sabrina Burr, whose brother was murdered in Seattle. The system failed him, Burr said.
“What I know is that the first knife that went into my brother’s heart came from Seattle Public Schools,” Burr said.
The conversation about reforming schools comes in tandem with a wider community push to slash funding for the Seattle Police Department by 50 percent. As the event took place, the Seattle City Council met across town, exploring how to make reductions in the 2020 budget.
Councilmembers admitted that they were not likely to make the level of cuts demanded by the community this year, instead focusing on proposals to cut funding and force the layoff or attrition of roughly 100 police, including the Navigation Team, a blended group of police and outreach workers that responds to homelessness issues.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Aug. 5-11, 2020 issue.