The Dignity in Schools Campaign-NY Chapter held a session on "Organizing for Change" at the one day conference, "Restoring Community in Schools: Promoting Positive Alternatives to the School to Prison Pipeline," hosted by the International Institute for Restorative Practices on May, 4 at the CUNY Grad Center. The conference was attended by diverse stakeholders including students, parents, teachers, principals, Department of Education officials, advocates, and policy makers.
The panel moderator, Samantha Velez, a youth leader with Sistas and Brothas United, started the DSC-NY panel by asking the audience to travel back in time to when they were in high school and remember what it felt like, and then to picture the conditions that today’s New York City students face when their rights are constantly violated by over-policing and zero-tolerance practices in the name of school safety.
During the panel, two students, one dean, and one advocate spoke about their own experiences in organizing to change discipline policies and create positive programs at their schools and the citywide level. CeAsia McDonald, a student at the High School for Violin and Dance on the Morris Campus in the Bronx, spoke about the peer mediation program at her school, which helps to de-escalate individual conflicts between students, and also helps the entire school community by creating trust and developing peer role models.
Daniel Jerome, dean at Banana Kelly High School in the Bronx, and member of Teachers Unite, described the journey of Banana Kelly High School moving away from punitive school discipline approaches towards building positive relationships with students and teachers, and using restorative conferencing to resolve conflicts. Banana Kelly High School created an “Intervention Team” that works with students to create a safe and supportive culture in school and respond to disciplinary incidents. This approach is not always easy, but through consistent support has resulted in a reduction in violence and a more positive school climate.
Nicodeme Auguste, a student at the Academy for Environmental Leadership on the Bushwick Campus in Brooklyn, helped start a group called “Leaders in Conflict Resolution” on his campus with the support of NESRI and the NYU Law School Advanced Mediation Clinic. This program selected students from all three high schools on campus who began their work by surveying their peers about what “conflict” is on their campus and what types of positive programs students would like. Then the student Leaders in Conflict Resolution created workshops to present to freshmen classrooms about how to prevent conflict before it escalates. They use methods of restorative circles, “I statements”, and peaceful martial arts in their workshops. Nicodeme joined the program to change the culture of his school.
Liz Sullivan, Director of the Human Right to Education Program at NESRI, spoke about how DSC-NY is working to take these positive programs that are happening in individual schools and make them happen citywide. One strategy being used by DSC-NY is public education and outreach through presentations in order to talk with communities about these positive alternatives and bring together parents, teachers, and students to create policy change that will actually work for all of the stakeholders in the school community. DSC-NY also advocates for more training opportunities for school staff and changes to the citywide Discipline Code and school safety policies.
The panel also showed a short clip from the video “Another Bronx for Youth” by Mass Transit Street Theater. The video documents how Eastern District High School, long listed as one of the ten most dangerous NYC schools, was transformed by students, an active community, and visionary principals. The film illustrates how a school was made safe in a way that respected students and how it has remained without metal detectors, NYPD abuse, or a serious incident of violence in thirteen years.
The panelists then engaged with the audience, by answering thoughtful questions. There was immense interest from the teachers, principals, parents and students in the audience to implement positive programs in their schools. This conference connected DSC-NY with new communities, teachers, parents, and administrations.
Shoshi Chowdhury – Coordinator, Dignity in Schools Campaign New York