Joya Headley was in seventh grade when metal detectors were suddenly installed at the entrance of her middle school, on Milwaukee’s north side. Students weren’t told why, but the development was consistent with the message the city had been sending them throughout their short lives.
Milwaukee has been called “the worst place to raise a black child” in America — and there’s a somber list of statistics to back up that claim. Wisconsin has the highest black infant mortality rate in the country, and Milwaukee’s black babies die at twice the rate of white babies. Three quarters of Milwaukee’s black children grow up in economically insecure households, and black children make up 67 percent of those removed from the custody of their parents. Their futures don’t promise much better: In 2017, Milwaukee allocated nearly 47 percent of its general fund expenditures to policing — a larger fraction than many other big cities — and the city’s 53206 zip code, which is 95 percent black, has held the grim record for the highest incarceration of black men in the country.
To Headley, who is black and lives in nearby 53205, watching her school take on the appearance of a prison was upsetting but unsurprising. “It made the environment feel unsafe,” she told The Intercept. “I guess many people argue that the metal detectors are there to make us safe; however, it doesn’t. It makes us more concerned on how safe our school really is, more concerned on why we can’t just walk into the building. Why do we have to be checked all the time?”
Headley’s experience is shared by more than 12,000 Milwaukee students who have to walk through metal detectors to get to class every morning in 12 of the city’s public schools. But if the airport-style machines have become symbolic of a sweeping criminalization of mostly black students in public schools across the country, in Milwaukee they are among the milder manifestations of the school-to-prison pipeline. A report released Tuesday by the Center for Popular Democracy and the Milwaukee youth group Leaders Igniting Transformation paints a much more troubling picture.
According to the report, in the 2016-2017 school year, Milwaukee Public Schools suspended 10,267 students, including one of every three ninth-graders. The Milwaukee Police Department has 12 dedicated officers assigned to public schools and another six deployed on the streets to take truant students into custody. That’s in addition to 269 school safety assistants, the city’s version of school resource officers. That deployment costs Milwaukee taxpayers more than $15 million a year, but it comes at an even greater social cost. During the last school year, police were called to city schools 2,895 times. Police or school security restrained or secluded students 1,139 times. And more than 3,000 students faced citations for missing school, requiring them to show up for court dates but making no dent in the city’s truancy rates.
“Milwaukee’s reliance on punitive approaches to discipline is ineffective, costly, and most troublingly, racially biased,” the report concludes. “Milwaukee Public Schools’ suspensions and expulsion rates — which disproportionately affect students of color — directly undermine impacted students’ fundamental right to education.”
Indeed, as Milwaukee schools criminalize youth behavior, black students fare the worst. Milwaukee’s black high school students are suspended at double the national rate — and though black students make up only 55 percent of the city’s student population, they accounted for nearly 85 percent of referrals to law enforcement in the 2013-2014 school year, according to the report. (Students with disabilities, who make up 20 percent of the student population, accounted for 91 percent of those restrained or put in seclusion in schools.)
The suspension and expulsion of black students reached rates so disproportionate that in 2014, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights launched an investigation into the city’s schools. The review ended in January with federal officials concluding that the schools lacked consistency in their application of discipline. Investigators found “over one hundred incidents at the district’s schools where black students were expelled, while similarly situated white students were suspended for similar conduct.” Following the investigation, MPS reached an agreement with federal officials, committing to sweeping reforms and an end to racially biased school discipline. MPS did not respond to a request for comment.
School officials have until June to come up with a fairer school discipline code. And students like Headley, who is now a junior at Milwaukee School of Languages, want a say in that process.
Like many in her generation, Headley was catapulted into social activism by a seemingly unending series of police killings of unarmed black men and women. For Headley, the turning point came with the 2014 police killing of Dontre Hamilton at a local Milwaukee park. “It kind of opened my eyes and motivated me to actually do something,” she said. “I just kind of became more aware of the way black people are treated in my city and the country.”
Headley channeled that motivation into school activism two years ago, after several city schools tested positive for high levels of lead in the water. “It kind of made me feel like, OK, I want to make a change in my city, it has to start with the schools,” Headley said. At the same time, she saw classmates get into trouble after they were suspended, and others disappear after getting caught up in the criminal justice system. A friend at another school was suspended following an incident with a security guard, who roughly stopped him while he was on his way to class because he didn’t have a pass. “They suspended him. For trying to go to class,” said Headley. “A security guard stopped him from going to class.”
As the DOE investigation kicked off a long-overdue school reform process, Headley and others saw an opportunity to channel their broad call for an end to the school-to-prison pipeline into policy demands. With Leaders Igniting Transformation, or LIT, they launched a campaign demanding that city officials “divest” from police officers, metal detectors, truancy citations, and suspensions and expulsions, and redirect that investment toward an “inclusive” school code, restorative justice processes, and more resources for social workers, guidance counselors, and a youth jobs program. With an online petition, the students pushed the school board to call six public hearings about the new school policy. The first session is scheduled for Wednesday.
“The fact that you have a group of young black kids willing to step up and say, We’re not going to take it anymore, is really powerful,” said Dakota Hall, LIT’s executive director. “The fact that they’re taking control of their own destiny and demanding that their values are met in public policies is uplifting.”
Students found an ally in the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, the local teachers union, which is fighting 5 percent cuts across the city’s schools as the department tries to close a $30 million budget deficit for the next school year. Teachers’ salaries have stagnated in Milwaukee, while those of police have soared by nearly 100 percent since 2011 — an irony not lost on those pushing for an end to the criminalization of youth.
Amy Mizialko, a union leader, called budget choices a matter of “values and priorities.”
“There’s been a program of austerity across this nation, specifically in black and brown communities and urban cities, purposefully aiming to break the public sphere and the public safety net,” said Mizialko, who has been a special education teacher in Milwaukee for 26 years. “The Wisconsin legislature just recently voted to allocate $350 million for prisons — at the same time that they’re telling public school students that they have to sit in classrooms of 45 children, that they have to use textbooks that are 15 years old.”
“What’s happening is not a Wisconsin story, it’s a national story,” she added, citing recent teachers strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky. “We don’t want police in schools. We want our schools funded.”
Headley says the budget cuts — including a proposal to cut school buses — are making even less politically engaged students question school officials’ sense. “A lot of students now know that with the budget cuts, they’re not going to be able to get to school, yet somehow the money is going to security guards,” she said.
Last month, a day after students across the country walked out of classes demanding action on gun violence in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced, and then quickly signed, a $100 million “school safety program” further strengthening relationships between schools and law enforcement.
That’s exactly the opposite of what those calling for an end to the school-to-prison pipeline want to see.
“Black students are being invested in, but the investment that’s being made is in criminalizing them, rather than supporting them,” said Dmitri Holtzman, director of education justice campaigns with the Center for Popular Democracy. “And the same can be said of teachers; they are not invested in, but at the drop of a hat, states will be able to find money to increase funding for weapons or police officers.”
“Although there’s benefit to the new energy and attention to school safety that’s been raised at the national level following the Florida shooting, the concern is that as we’ve seen before when school safety becomes an issue, the response often is to add more police, more metal detectors, more SROs,” he added, referring to student resource officers. “And the students in Milwaukee and other places can tell you that’s already the situation that they’re in, and in fact, the school safety debate is now actually potentially going to be even more dangerous for them.”
But officials’ response to the Parkland shooting is also a reminder for black and brown youth of the indifference with which their demands and activism — as opposed to those of their white peers — are often met.
“It’s kind of heartbreaking,” said Headley, who added that she supports the student movement sparked by the Parkland shooting and recently spoke at a March for Our Lives event held at the Milwaukee park where Dontre Hamilton was killed.
“When black and brown youth showcase what they’re going through, nobody cares, but then when white students do, everyone cares?” she added. “It really shows racial disparity in America. The whole Black Lives Matter movement, all these police shootings, when people address that, it’s a temporary hashtag and it goes away. But when white students address their issues, they go on ‘Ellen,’ they go on Time magazine, national marches, national walkouts.”
Still, Milwaukee’s students are not waiting for national endorsements to demand safety for their schools, too. This is the generation that came of age seeing Trayvon Martin get killed and get no justice, Hall said. They are coming up with their own visions of what justice and safety look like.
“They’re very aware that their life does not mean a lot to a lot of people,” Hall added. “As much as post-Parkland it’s been talked about how this is going to be the gun reform generation, I think for students of color, this is the Trayvon, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown generation that is not going to accept the devaluing of black and brown lives.”