July 3, 2016
By Nijah Glenn
On June 17th, a group of student activists gathered at the Pittsburgh Public School Board to discuss changes in school code for the benefit of current and future Pittsburgh Public School (PPS) students. Students from Young Undoing Institutional Racism (YUIR) met with Dr. Dara Ware Allen, the Assistant Superintendent for Student Support Services, in order to clarify and improve pieces of the student code. With the teens of YUIR ranging from both private schools within the city such as Winchester Thurston and public schools like CAPA and Barack Obama Academy, a variety of backgrounds and interests were represented for the students of the district.
As per a report published by the National Center for Education Statistics from a previous school year (2013-2014), the PPS district has a 54.15% African-American majority. Much of YUIR’s focus is in undoing conscious and unconscious internalized and systematic racism, and accounting for the intersectionality of interests in our world. A major point the teens called for was an amendment to the current disciplinary levels enforced in PPS. There are only two current disciplinary levels, of which both tardiness and teasing fellow students are placed as level one offenses, while both academic dishonesty and arson are placed as level two infractions. Given the disparate natures of offenses within the same levels, students called for more clarity within how levels are defined and as to how disciplinary action would be addressed.
Given the high population of students of color within the district, the teens of YUIR sought to address the current policies and punishments, such as suspensions, to alleviate disproportionate discipline of said students. Students noted that punishments like suspension for offenses such as not adhering to dress code interfere with a student’s education and may place a student further behind. Additionally, the students pushed for the district to recognize matters such as safety for students inside as well as outside of the school. Students may travel through unsafe areas to school and as a result, may carry items such as pepper spray; however, current policies within the city and commonwealth do not account for these challenges that students may face.
The students call for recognition of these special circumstances as to not affect the education of students, and to care about them in not only academics, but in mind and body. Additionally, students called for better wording in regards to policies, specifically targeting the notion of “Safer Saner Schools,” to encourage a safe and non-ableist space as well as more care in noting that current structures may not be conducive for families which do not speak English or English as first language.
Self expression is a vital part of student life. A point of interest noted that differing opinions between educators and students can be considered disrespectful conduct. Given what many see as a hierarchal power imbalance between students and educators, the ability to punish students for deviation in thought or belief allows the notion to exist that students are truculent, dishonest, or defiant. The teens proposed addition of affinity groups for students and staff, and a mixture of both to alleviate tensions between the different populations. Workshops focusing on issues such as racism provided by organizers within the social justice community and with input from students were also proposed as suggestions in order to help the PPS community grow. Dr. Ware Allen was very receptive to the points proposed, noting the importance of a safe zone for students and the necessity of students receiving an education without obstacles created by educators.
In order for students to grow within their environment, it is important to have a solid foundation within one’s place of education. Students and their needs must be accounted for rather than streamlined to a place of no return. The PPS district is diverse in the walks of life represented, as well as the ethnic groups represented. The YUIR teens noted that in order to help students grow, this diversity must be accounted for. With the changes proposed, hopefully, there will be a better future for students within the district for many years to come.
Nijah Glenn is a senior biology major and dedicated youth activist. She is a member of the NewPeople editorial collective, avid coffee consumer, and is dedicated to making both the scientific field & world more equitable.