Since 1866, Juneteenth has centered radical joy and serves as a reminder of what is at stake, and how critical our movements for liberation are.
As we continue to reflect on the emancipation of our ancestors and hold space for our joy, we must reflect on the work that remains and recommit to our shared liberation—our eyes fixed on the promise of a just and equitable America.
Our young people are at the forefront of those confronting the challenges we face and are among the clearest voices calling to dismantle our entrenched systems of oppression. From our homes to our churches, to our schools, young Black folks from all walks of life have picked up the mantle of organizing, calling for policies that center their humanity.
Black students deserve to learn in environments that support their healing and success. When students enter a classroom, they should be able to show up exactly as they are and be poured into by educators and trauma-informed staff who share their lived experience. But when our students show up in the classroom, they are too often seen as threats that need to be policed.
This Juneteenth arrived after a difficult year of exceptional trauma, particularly for the youngest within our communities. Our youth have endured unprecedented loss and grief due to COVID-19, with Black children disproportionately shouldering that burden. This is painfully unsurprising, as we knew long before the pandemic, that our most vulnerable young people have carried the weight of compounded and ancestral trauma with them throughout their adolescence.
Rather than develop spaces for healing and care to address this trauma, our nation has built systems of criminalization and surveillance for our Black, brown, Indigenous, LGBTQIA+, and low-income youth, and young people with disabilities.
The criminalization of our students and the carceralization of schools has been a process decades in the making.
In this moment where it’s necessary to tell the whole truth about our history in an aim of healing, reconciliation and progress, let’s take a look at how we got here:
- 1948: The first police officers are assigned to schools across the country in increasingly integrated neighborhoods.
- 1954: Following the landmark Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Supreme Court decision ruling racial segregation in public school unconstitutional, racist fears about Black students entering white education spaces spurred the criminalization of adolescent behavior. As school districts moved toward integration, the protection of white spaces and perceptions of the delinquency of youth of color across the country sparked a growing presence of police in schools.
- 1967: As part of his “War on Crime,” President Johnson’s Crime Commission unveiled a report that set the groundwork for a new and expanded era of surveillance, profiling, policing, and confinement. The report argued that “America’s best hope for reducing crime is to reduce juvenile delinquency and youth crime,” further fueling the development of punitive learning environments.
- 1979: Twenty-five years after Brown, in the midst of the Boston busing crisis, student activism, championed by Black and brown young people is met with ever greater police presence in schools.
- 1989: Due to an increasing reliance on “pre-delinquency” and predictive policing of youth of color, in a four year period from 1985 to 1989, Black youth in juvenile custody increased by 10 percent, while white youth in custody declined by 13 percent.
- 1994: Congress passes the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act creating the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program and allocating nearly $9 billion in federal funds to increase police presence in community settings, including schools.
- 2001: With increased presence of police, schools expand policies that utilize police and criminalize behavior. By 2001, 90 percent of school systems have implemented zero-tolerance or three-strikes discipline policies.
- 2013: The federal government invests four times more in school policing than counseling. 1.6 million students attend a school where a police officer is on payroll but a school counselor or mental health professional is not.
Without a doubt, over the last six decades, the presence of police in schools has been legitimized and codified in federal policies and budgets. The result is an education system that disproportionately punishes and arrests Black and brown students, students with disabilities, and LGBTQIA+ students.
But another world is possible.
Our students need healing, but have been met with surveillance and criminalization. Our students need love, but have been met with zero-tolerance and punishment.
We must stand in solidarity with our students calling for schools where they can show up fully and learn and thrive. That is why last week, I reintroduced the Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act in partnership with Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), and Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.).
This legislation centers the humanity of our students and calls to redirect federal funding used to fund law enforcement in schools, and instead provide robust funding for culturally responsive, trauma informed behavioral health professionals. Removing police from schools is a necessary first step toward healing our communities.
We must heed the calls of our young people and provide them with the tools needed to work alongside us to repair the hurt and harm.
On Juneteenth, and every day, I honor our young people. They truly are our ancestors’ wildest dreams. It’s time for Congress to legislate the future they demand, deserve and require.
Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley is an advocate, policymaker, activist and survivor who represents the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Her legislation is informed by the People’s Justice Guarantee, her bold framework to transform the American criminal legal system that calls for schools to create safe and nurturing environments that provide all students with the opportunity to heal, thrive and reach their highest potential. Also informed by the People’s Justice Guarantee is Rep. Pressley’s Ending PUSHOUT Act, her bold legislation to end the punitive pushout of girls of color from schools and disrupt the school-to-confinement pathway.