Youth speak out in week of action on school ‘pushouts’

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Will Treece

About 50 people gathered at the United Way Building Thursday to bring attention to the ongoing problem of school pushouts in an event called "Youth Speak Out Against Push Out."

The meeting, sponsored by the Campaign for Non-Violent Schools and Education Not Incarceration-Delaware Valley, was held as part of the Dignity in Schools’ National Week of Action on School Pushout.

From October 1-8 thousands of parents, youth, and educators participated in student-led activities throughout 27 cities, including Philadelphia.

The meeting featured youth and adults sharing their experiences of being pushed out through discussion, poetry, and song. Students also participated in video interviews, which Education Not Incarceration plans to turn into a brief documentary.

Pushout is a phrase coined in reaction to the term “dropout” in order to better represent the societal factors that cause students to leave school, rather than placing the blame on students for choosing to drop out. In February, Youth United for Change (YUC) released a report detailing the pushout crisis in the Philadelphia.

The National Week of Action aims to continue drawing attention to this crisis, especially with regard to hard-line disciplinary measures taken by many schools.

Durant Ratcliff, a student at Kensington High School, told the story of a student who was pushed out of school as a result of a fight in the cafeteria.

“These guys started fighting [over ketchup]. A guard took one of them behind the school and handcuffed him, and we didn’t see that student for two months after that – over ketchup,” Ratcliff said.

Yvonne Knight, a student at Rhodes High School, talked about experiencing excessive school discipline; she said, “I got locked up in seventh grade. A teacher hit me, and I swung back, but they said I assaulted him.”

Knight also gave examples of her school’s suspension policies, which she claims are too aggressive.

“If I come to school without my school shirt, I get a day of in-school suspension, plus another day of suspension. I miss school for two days,” she said.

Some students cited a lack of materials and ripped books as reasons why school feels unappealing, while others expressed frustration at the amount of time spent on standardized tests.

Harold Jordan, a community organizer for the American Civil Liberties Union and a member of the Dignity in Schools Campaign’s national leadership team, said he is concerned about the school-to-prison pipeline and believes that the presence of armed police in schools could exacerbate the pushout problem.

“We need police in the District to distinguish between the role of the police in law enforcement and seriously violent instances, and more routine day-to-day issues in schools,” said Jordan, who was one of the meeting facilitators.

“It may lead to a situation where more young people are arrested.”

Participants agreed that when it comes to addressing the pushout problem, the District needs to better understand the frustration of students and communities.

“[The District should be] looking to the environment of the schools, and doing real evaluations of what’s happening. It’s hard to get the people on top to get down and see what’s going on,” said Koby Murphy, an organizer with the Philadelphia Student Union who gave a spoken word performance at the meeting.

YUC members emphasized using restorative justice, a collaborative and nonviolent approach to school discipline, as opposed to zero tolerance. YUC is currently trying to implement restorative justice in a number of District schools.

Murphy said he was pleased with the event, and hoped to continue dialogue about school pushout beyond the meeting.

“It’s always refreshing to hear young people talk about their experiences. There needs to be more of this. For an organization like Student Union, it’s on us to keep the conversation going.”

“National Week of Action or not, we’ll still try to stick to these issues,” he said.