Student-created petition advocates for education equity

A summer filled with Black Lives Matter protests across the globe fueled a force for change. At the school, two students, juniors Rosie Couture and Belan Yoshida, created a change.org petition. It advocated for change in Arlington and an end to the “school-to-prison pipeline” through the elimination of the school resource officer program and the creation of a transparent disciplinary system. The initial goal listed was 500 signatures. Instead, the petition has garnered 1,065 signatures and counting. 

“Education inequality can be found in discrepancies in achievement rates of students of color, low-income students, and students with disabilities,” the petition stated. “But it can also be found in other areas such as racially disparate discipline rates and funding directed towards punitive programs such as [school resource] officers.”

The then-sophomore students read the 2019 Arlington Community Report. This is a report that utilizes nonprofit information and youth surveys to provide a comprehensive report that includes everything from LGBTQ+ youth wellness information to youth arrest/suspension information. But some inequities drew their attention and they chose to act.

“As concerned Arlington Public School (APS) students, Belan Yeshigeta and I provide a unique perspective on these issues because we are necessarily in-tune with the concerns of our peers and generation,” Couture said.

They also provided a document that contained the demands fully broken down. Addressing Disproportionate Exclusionary Discipline Rates, Decolonizing the Classroom & Implicit Bias Training, and Demilitarizing our Schools and Redirecting Funding are all sections described.

“[Our current policy] is not easily accessible to parents, as can be seen in the APS Handbook,” Couture said. “In addition, identifying and investing in alternative strategies for conflict resolution in lieu of such punishments needs to be prioritized.”

School resource officers (SROs) are police officers in schools that can arrest students at APS. They are at the center of a controversy in the center of a movement to ‘defund the police.’ According to a Report from the United States Government Accountability Office, Black students are overrepresented in disciplinary actions including suspension.

“[We] applaud students for seeking change,” Arlington Public School spokesman Frank Bellavia said. “[APS pledges] to better educate and train our leaders and staff to tackle systemic bias and inequities that have led to opportunity gaps and disproportionality in discipline.” 

After a virtual forum or discussion, APS has established a “working group” to evaluate the benefit of SROs that began meetings in December. 

“They are taking strides to re-evaluate the concerns outlined in our demands as seen by their town-halls and formation of the SRO working group,” Couture said. “[But students] need immediate action. We so far have gotten half-baked conversations and working groups.”

The members of the working group that will present a recommendation in June of 2021 include students, staff members and police officers — including one former SRO.

“Everyone makes mistakes [and] Arlington Public Schools and the Arlington County police department — but really our judicial system as a whole — understands that,” former Washington-Liberty SRO, Richard Kelly said. “I can count on two hands how many kids I actually ended up having to arrest.”

According to him, the good rapport with students helps students go to them with any problems that need police attention. During his time at the school, Kelly taught classes, lifted weights at the gym and sat at students’ lunch tables. He was even part of a “promposal.” 

“[Three white males] severely beat up [a student to the point] where a boy had to go to the hospital,” Officer Kelly said. “He felt comfortable enough to come see me and was covered in blood. Do we want him to sit there [and] talk to someone else and feel more uncomfortable?”

In an Education at a Glance compendium, it was shown that the typical U.S. student spends 8,884 hours in school. So, according to Dr. Michael Linsey, it’s important for kids to feel safe and comfortable. But around two thirds of black Americans reported not trusting the police in a Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) survey.

“I have never had any bad experiences with an SRO but I am white and have never really had any encounters with SROs,” Couture said. “[Some students] are unable to understand why SROs have bad relationships with students. Most of the pushback we have gotten is from white students that can’t see past their privilege and personal lived experiences.”

Couture and Yeshida wrote that the money from the police department should be redirected to Equity and Excellence counselors and psychologists, departments that are understaffed. School counselors are licensed educators with a minimum of a Master’s degree in counseling according to the APS website

“There’s been a lot of talk in just the country right now about law enforcement,” counselor Nicole Wiley said. “That does affect me personally just because [as a black woman] I have had friends and family that were probably profiled by the police.”

However, in her experience, it was a joint process: the student, counselor and SRO would sit and talk around a round table. She had two cases of assault that she went to the SRO with. 

“First of all, [he was] giving them advice on what they can do about the resulting assault, how to properly record it,” Ms. Wiley said. “[A] student was able to eventually find a safer place to live, because of the school resource officer’s support.”

But not all on the school staff agree with Ms. Wiley. By June 10, more than fifty APS teachers shared their support for the curated demands. Students, parents and APS alumni also signed the petition, signaling their agreement.

“Although we [at APS] pride ourselves in our diversity and inclusivity and are often commended for it, we still have a ways to go before we can claim that our schools are truly equitable,” Couture said. 

To sign the petition go to: https://www.change.org/p/arlington-public-schools-demands-to-address-education-inequities-in-arlington-public-schools

Reach out to rosiepcouture@gmail.com or belan.yeshigeta@gmail.com with inquiries.