In the Words of, are segments and pieces written by authors within our extended i love this place community. These young people offer their own perspective, lens and analysis of issues around societal issues, community change and their own experiences.
A cultural connoisseur, avid traveller and social critic, Alice Chang is a girl steps ahead of many of her peers. Her investigative pieces take on controversial subjects, with a critical lens and an insightful product. In her presence, if her laugh doesn't captivate, then her penmanship surely will.
Even before joining the PLACE program, I had always been interested in education. I attended NYC public schools in Queens before attending De La Salle Academy and the Riverdale Country School, independent schools. I always questioned why it was only in exclusive school settings like in Riverdale where I was allowed to make mistakes and actually learn how to ask questions. Before De La Salle, I had to pass through metal detectors everyday, and I was prohibited from speaking out of turn. Otherwise, I would have been given detention or worse, suspended. I was also surrounded by other students of color from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, versus being one of few Asian students at Riverdale surrounded by mainly white students from much wealthier backgrounds. These questions led me to read countless articles and have multiple conversations about our education system, and ultimately take a course about the inequities surrounding it. However, I had never actually learned about the steps that need to be taken in order to replace punitive disciplines at the local school level, and I truly wanted to implement institutional change.
As part of the PLACE program, I worked with a NYC non-profit called Teachers Unite (TU). We work to end the school-to-prison pipeline by implementing restorative justice practices instead of punitive disciplines. The pipeline is metaphor used to describe the increasing patterns of contact students of color, with mental illnesses, or of lower socioeconomic status have with the juvenile and adult criminal justice systems as a result of the punitive discipline practices implemented by schools, the zero tolerance policies, and police presence in schools. Restorative justice aims to humanize these students by having students and administration have discussions and mediations with one another in order to have a more thorough understanding of an incident and come to a peaceful settlement. It aims to have calling the police as the last resort rather than the first. The end long-term goal is to have a team of paid social workers in each school to practice restorative justice.
I got to hear from Taeko Onishi -- the principal at the Lyons Community School -- and her student Sean about their experience with restorative justice practices, and simply hearing from them, and how life-changing it had been for them, taught me that restorative justice is not only about trying to end this grander systemic school-to-prison pipeline issue. It’s also about trying to humanize students rather than criminalize them, even at the most individual level. This internship served as a reminder that big action plans need to start small and that restorative justice practices don’t simply poof out of nowhere, especially with all the logistical details I’ve had to organize. I ultimately learned about the importance of restorative justice initiatives: if we treat students and teachers as the individuals they are, they can have a better sense of themselves and more appreciation for the people around them.
Additionally, in my time at TU, I learned some seriously disappointing but not all too surprising facts. I had to compile certain schools’ suspension data that the NYC Department of Education had released that broke the suspensions down based on race, gender, and mental ability. In all the schools, students of color were suspended at a significantly higher rate than their white peers, and students with IEPs (individualized education plans tailored to students who have been determined to have a disability, as defined by federal regulations, intended to allow them to learn more comfortably than they otherwise would have in a general classroom setting) were suspended at almost double the rate than their general education peers.
With this data, I really had to question what the role of a school is. Is it a place to cultivate youth and give them the tools to go into the workforce? Or is it a place to train the youth -- youth of color especially -- to listen to authorities without question and to incarcerate them?
These graphs I made are actual suspension data from a sample public school from New York, correlating racial demographics and mental ability to suspensions. It does not speak to all NYC public schools, but it is one of the most surprising data I’ve compiled.
The knowledge I learned through Teachers Unite has truly opened my eyes to the reality of our education system and how it can negatively implicate its students. The PLACE program and Teachers Unite is only the first step in my pursuit of institutional educational equity. I hope through my reflection of the PLACE program, everyone is more inclined to take a step back and consider how the education system has implicated them: has it privileged or denied you an easier path to higher education? Schools are a very local environment; what can you do (through non-profits or at the schools themselves) to help today’s youth realize their true potential to be more than space-holders in a prison cell?
Alice Chang, 18