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Florida Students Advocating For Schoolhouses, Not Jailhouses

For many American teenagers, hearing criticism of their supposed apathy towards the issues of the day is almost a routine occurrence. But not for this group of Florida students.

Dream Defenders, a Miami-based group of young people organized in reaction to the murder of 17 year old Trayvon Martin, is now working alongside Florida state lawmakers, including Progressive States Network member Sen. Dwight Bullard, to call for the passage of "Trayvon's Law" -- a package of legislative proposals that affect them directly. Last month, forty students belonging to the group took part in training on how to speak effectively about the proposal to lawmakers. Then they did exactly that, meeting with state legislators and their aides in the Florida state capitol. It's the kind of advocacy work that would impress professionals who do it for a living.

At the heart of Trayvon's Law is a plan to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, an insidious national trend of policies that are pushing children out of classrooms and into the criminal justice system. Sen. Bullard, a teacher himself, has long been leading on this issue in the Florida statehouse. He noted that instead of ordinary misbehaviors like tardiness or talking back being handled in the principal's office, minor infractions are now prompting officials to criminalize children under the guise of misguided rules like "zero tolerance" policies.

Unfortunately, the impact of expelling or shipping the children off to jail only makes them more likely to drop out or wind up in prison permanently. To demonstrate the overreaching nature of the current policies in Florida, more than 4,000 kindergarten and Pre-K students were suspended last year. Not only is the school-to-prison pipeline damaging these children's lives and setting them up for social failure later, often with lasting effects, it's also black and Hispanic children bearing the brunt. For example, research has shown that even after controlling for types of student behavior and poverty, African-American students still had 1.5 times higher rates of suspension or expulsion than white students did.

According to the Dream Defenders, children should be educated, not incarcerated -- a goal shared by Florida families, education experts, and civil rights leaders. And now the youngsters are working with state lawmakers to meet that goal with specific ideas, to change Florida's laws to make sure that their public schools remain a gateway to a successful adulthood rather than prison.

Given the controversial and deeply flawed Shoot First law implicated in Trayvon Martin's killing and his shooter's acquittal, any measure named after Trayvon would be expected to address that issue as well. The proposal advocated by the Dream Defenders does: it would repeal the Florida loophole, also known as Stand Your Ground, that essentially allows armed people to provoke a fight, then escalate the violence instead of retreating and kill the victim lest he becomes a living witness. The reality, which these young students know firsthand, is that one's skin color often still matters in America today whether a person is taken in a snap judgment to be "threatening" to another -- a phenomenon that feeds into and is fed by the over-criminalization of black and Hispanic Americans. It's a key reason why the components of Trayvon's Law fit together.

 

Stepping back from the details of the proposal, the broader significance of the Dream Defender students' advocacy efforts becomes clear. Our public schools are more than places where students soak up textbook lessons and discuss the issues that others tell them are important. They are the training grounds for our nation's leaders and future voters. What better way is there to deepen their stake in the state's and nation's policy future, their capacity to engage in thoughtful public discourse, and their determination to create change than to mentor them when an issue so stirs their passion? It's hard to think of one. That's why for these Florida youngsters, and their teachers and mentors like Sen. Bullard, their participation in our great democracy now is simply part of a great education.