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Durham public school students joined social justice advocates at Duke Law last week to discuss school-to-prison pipeline in North Carolina and the barriers preventing its dismantling, the broader impact of organizing, peer education, and community lawyering in justice work.

Historically, North Carolina schools are the source of nearly half of annual referrals to the juvenile criminal system. Those numbers dropped during the pandemic, but advocates worry they are rising again this school year.

Sada Maryanov, 17, and Zora Deberry, 18, are members of the Youth Steering Committee (YSC), a project of the Justice System Reform department at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice (SCSJ). They spoke to a class at Duke Law along with Marcus Pollard, a Justice System Reform attorney at SCSJ, and Letha Muhammad of Education Justice Alliance. 

The students shared their hope for being able to get rid of the school-to-prison pipeline in the future. 

“I don’t have a choice but to be hopeful that things will change,” Maryanov told the class. “In fact, I think having hope is the decent thing to do.”

Deberry added that having educators, students, and other members of the community reach out her and her peers to gain perspective and push for what’s right gives her the strength to continue advocacy work around the issue.

Students of color accused of non-violent and minor offenses continue to be disproportionately impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline in North Carolina. It’s been shown this early interaction with punitive measures and upholders of the carceral system further isolates students from their classrooms, peers, and opportunities for learning.

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Others on the panel discussed how successful campaigns and efforts to address the pipeline have been rooted in holistic community engagement.

“We’ve had the most success when we’ve leaned heavily into our people”, Pollard explained. “In schools, if a child is disruptive, the best results have come from consulting parents or guardians, not relying on Student Resource Officers (SROs) to deescalate the situation. How can an armed stranger untrained in child wellbeing be the thing a child needs?”

In a school setting, leaning on community can mean that students call on each other for support. 

“Know Your Rights workshops have been really helpful,” said Deberry and Maryanov. “If we can’t stop SROs from engaging with us, the least we can do is uplift each other and stay informed.”

Despite the success of Know Your Rights workshops, both students expressed disappointment that the bulk of de-escalation seems to rest on students instead of the adults and administrators who are meant to protect them. 

“They don’t trust us to be experts in our own everyday lived reality, but still want us to do the work,” they added. 

Muhammed told the class she still regularly runs into barriers in her advocacy work to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. She said the decision-making process starts from the top, and is rooted in punitive measures as opposed to nurturing ones. 

She dismissed the addition of more SROs in school as negligent policy-making, noting that a significant part of the dismantling work is to change the social conditioning around public and community safety.

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“Often our elected leaders lack the courage to hold positions that they feel others will [target] them for,” Muhammad said. “[My son] should not feel like school is a prison.”

Pollard said speaking at the Duke Law class gave him hope for the future of this work.

“You have four generations of advocates sitting here,” he added. “Advocacy isn’t always in a courtroom. It can happen anywhere.”

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Felecia Phillips Ollie DD (h.c.) is the inspiring leader and founder of The Equality Network LLC (TEN). With a background in coaching, travel, and a career in news, Felecia brings a unique perspective to promoting diversity and inclusion. Holding a Bachelor's Degree in English/Communications, she is passionate about creating a more inclusive future. From graduating from Mississippi Valley State University to leading initiatives like the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, Felecia is dedicated to making a positive impact. Join her journey on our blog as she shares insights and leads the charge for equity through The Equality Network.

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