Milwaukee students of color say it’s time to talk about the school-to-prison pipeline

Teenage activism extends far beyond Parkland.

Two girls run on the street as members of the Milwaukee County Sheriff Dept. secure Sherman Park after a 6pm curfew was enacted after a second night of clashes between protesters and police August 15, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (CREDIT: Darren Hauck/Getty Images)
Two girls run on the street as members of the Milwaukee County Sheriff Dept. secure Sherman Park after a 6pm curfew was enacted after a second night of clashes between protesters and police August 15, 2016 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (CREDIT: Darren Hauck/Getty Images)

As teenagers across the United States call for gun control, some are casting a wider net and demanding broader reforms. Students of color in Milwaukee, Wisconsin say limiting firearms is only the first step on a long road to helping schools become safer spaces, calling attention to general disciplinary discrepancies and policing within the education system — something they say needs to be addressed by city and state officials.

Wisconsin has the highest rates of suspensions for Black high school students of any state in the country. In Milwaukee, the state’s largest city and one of the most segregated in the country, those rates are nearly double the national average. But state officials — including Gov. Scott Walker (R) — have indicated that issue is one best solved by introducing more armed guards, rather than addressing the systemic issues activists say underly the numbers. Last week, the state Senate approved Walker’s $100 million school safety plan, which includes funding for more police. Lawmakers rejected a Democratic effort to strengthen gun control.

A group of former and current Milwaukee students say that’s a problem — one they’re organizing to address.

“[A]re we here to learn or are we here to be policed?” asked Joya Headley, a Black junior at Milwaukee School of Languages, during a school board meeting last Thursday. Headley argued that the criminalization of Black students is creating a challenging environment, one that is ultimately hurting students.


Headley is serving as one of the leading organizers for a growing movement demanding accountability and overhaul in the city. Their goal is to shift school safety away from policing, guns, and tactics like suspension and expulsion, and towards a system that allows for more guidance counselors, social services, and other means of addressing conflict.

That call comes at a time of rising teenage activism across the country. Following a massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 people last month, survivors united to call for gun control and demand action. Two weeks ago, students around the United States walked out of their classrooms demanding an end to gun violence. Headley was one of them.

“It’s also a problem in our community. So many people are dying in our streets. So many people are dying in our schools and we need to do something about it,” she said during the walk-out at her own school.

Many commentators have noted that a number of the prominent Parkland activists are white, while those who disproportionately suffer from gun violence in the United States are Black. That reality hasn’t been lost on many teenagers — youth of color have been calling attention to the outsized impact guns have on their community for many years, a cry that has heightened in the time since the Parkland shooting. But for students like Headley, the problems stretch far beyond appeals for gun control.


“I have seen many students get suspended for minor offenses like talking back or even security guards called to the classroom because a teacher can’t handle a situation in the classroom,” she said last Thursday.

Headley and her co-organizer, CJ Robinson, a high school senior, have been working with a group called Leaders Igniting Transformation, or LIT, in an effort to have their demands met. To corroborate their arguments, they have federal data: a Department of Education (DOE) report that became public in January indicates staggering racial disparities in Milwaukee’s school system. A federal investigation into the issue revealed Black students were punished disproportionately to their white peers in more than 100 incidents over a two year period.

A petition circulated by LIT calling for reforms sparked thousands of emails to the Milwaukee school board. Now, the board has agreed to hold six public hearings on the DOE report — something activists say is essential to addressing the problem.

“We want our public schools district to stop adding to the school to prison pipeline, and invest in our classrooms and not fancy administration level positions that have little interaction with students,” Dakota Hall, a community organizer and youth advocate who serves as the founding director of LIT, told ThinkProgress.

“By divesting from punitive and criminalizing functions of schools, and invest[ing] those funds into student supporting roles,” Hall said, the city will “see higher graduation rates and less suspensions. In a post Parkland moment, the answer is not putting more bullets in the classrooms with armed guards, but giving students true compassion.”

The role Parkland has played in framing national conversations about gun violence and teenage activism more broadly is significant, said Dmitri Holtzman, who works as director of education justice campaigns for the Center for Popular Democracy. Those “newly engaged” youth have joined efforts spearheaded by youth of color for many years, Holtzman told ThinkProgress. He cited efforts like those by the Urban Youth Collaborative, a New York City-based initiative fighting for education reform.


“For many communities and youth of color across the country, the need for school safety has been a critical issue and focus of decades of campaigning and community based organizing calling for policy and legislative reform,” said Holtzman, who went on to add that, “Our youth want counselors, not cops.”

The Parkland activists have drawn attention to issues that have plagued the United States for decades. But for students of color the movement has had its downsides, something organizers in Milwaukee feel keenly.

“[A negative] response to the tragedy [has been] arming teachers and arming guards in schools,” said Hall, who explained that armed police have long been a reality in schools with large non-white populations. Funding cuts also mean that what money does go to schools results less in educational resources and more in hiring armed guards, he said.

That isn’t helping students of color. Black Parkland survivors themselves have indicated their discomfort with the prospect of any gun reform movement that involves more police in schools. Still, Hall said the activism stemming from the Parkland shooting has been key for teenage activists like those in Milwaukee.

“Parkland students have opened the door on a national level to talk about violence in communities of color that has often been ignored by mainstream media,” he said.

With that door open, student activists are more than prepared to speak.

“The youth are the main ones affected by what hasn’t been fixed throughout previous generations and I feel like it’s my responsibility and the responsibility of my peers and my black and brown brothers and sisters to do something about the issues that affect them directly,” Headley gamely told listeners during the school board meeting.

Elsewhere in Wisconsin, student activism made headlines earlier this week when a group of high school students marched 50 miles from their hometown of Madison to the home of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R), a representative from Janesville who has long advocated for gun rights and taken funding from the National Rifle Association. The students, who attend Shorewood High School, said they were inspired by Black civil rights leaders, including Martin Luther King Jr., who led a 54-mile march in 1965 from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama demanding voting rights.