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Radical Imaginary And The Student Bill Of Rights

San Antonio ISD just approved a new Student Code of Conduct and Student Bill of Rights. It’s a hugely important step, and one without precedent in our district. No longer will student expectations be framed only in terms of what is expected of our young people. Instead, for the first time, students in SAISD will have a reference-point for what they can reasonably expect from their educational experience in district schools. All of those involved in its creation should be proud of the work, the difficult conversations, and the endless meetings and fruitful collaboration. But the Bill of Rights is more important for the conversation that it opens in our district than for those that gave rise to it.

The challenge we now face is to create a space for a deeper conversation; one truly inclusive of stakeholder voices; one that centers students and community members; one that leverages the expertise of strategic partnerships; and one that asks difficult questions about educational equity, student safety, disproportionality, and criminal justice.

In a time of near-unparalleled inequality, mass incarceration, mass deportation, and resurgent White supremacy, maintaining and expanding student rights should be a top priority for all educators. That’s why on August 19, a group of thirteen local, state, and national organizations sent a letter to SAISD leadership, and joined students, teachers, and community members at the board meeting to advocate for access to, and shared ownership of, a continuing conversation about student rights in our schools.

In seven specific asks, developed in collaboration with students, parents, and community members, our coalition called for this first iteration of the Student Bill of Rights to be a launching-off point rather than a premature end to the most important discussion about youth justice in our schools in recent times.

We called on district leaders to expand the conversation by institutionalizing student, teacher, and community involvement for future improvements in the Bill of Rights and Code of Conduct. Students, teachers, parents and guardians, and community members, should, we argue, be meaningfully involved in creating and refining these documents - and not just in the form of focus groups and surveys. Students should have ownership of this process, and a document that begins with the words “WE THE STUDENTS of San Antonio Independent School District, in order to form a more perfect school district, have established the Student Bill of Rights” should be authentically written and driven by them.

We called on district leaders to partner with us - a coalition of organizations with enormous expertise in youth justice work - to educate students and community members about their rights in school and when interacting with school personnel, police, and immigration enforcement. It’s our view that abstract rights are all-but meaningless if not enacted; that it is only through exercising our rights, and fully inhabiting the spaces of freedom and agency that they afford us, that documents such as this one meaningfully impact our lives. Students, teachers, parents and guardians, and community members need explicit education not only on their educational (those listed in the Student Bill of Rights) but also constitutional rights.

Among the most important lessons that our schools could teach to students - the practice of agency and freedom contained as a possibility within this document, and actualized through a conscious exercise of formal rights - remains too-often untaught across our city. This fact alone tells us much about our priorities as stewards of the citizens and leaders of the future.

The challenge we now face is to create a space for a deeper conversation; one truly inclusive of stakeholder voices; one that centers students and community members; one that leverages the expertise of strategic partnerships; and one that asks difficult questions about educational equity, student safety, disproportionality, and criminal justice.

Finally we called on SAISD to break with dominant assumptions about the role of police in our schools. We called on them, in keeping with the new provisions in SB 1707, to limit police-student interactions to criminal investigations, removing police officers from everyday discipline and administrative tasks. Research clearly and unequivocally shows that increased levels of contact between students and police officers across the country has led to the reclassification of behavior issues as criminal offenses, increased numbers of arrests, suspensions, drop-outs, and the transfer of huge numbers of youth of color into the school-prison-deportation pipeline.

We should move our focus from policing youth to providing focused social, mental health, and counselling services for our students; from treating misbehavior as worthy of punitive discipline, to seeing in it signs of alienation, disaffection, and a lack of belonging in what should be the most welcoming of spaces for our young people. The move towards limited trials of restorative practices at some SAISD campuses is welcome. But transforming the way we interact with, punish, and police our youth necessitates an unprecedented philosophical - rather than merely technical - transformation in SAISD schools. Implementing a series of programs at campuses, and techniques in our classrooms will never achieve this transformation if we misdiagnose the challenge we face as a programmatic issue, rather than one necessitating a serious reckoning with the ideas that underpin our every decision as educators. Schools that prioritize student agency, rights and autonomy as their animating principles are, after all, fundamentally different spaces from those that prioritize order, behavior management, and job preparedness.

Discussions of school policing have been conspicuously absent during the creation of this Student Bill of Rights, and students’ constitutional rights are conspicuously absent from the list of ten rights affixed to the front page of the new Student Code of Conduct. We should center both in the conversation as we move forward.

Further, we should institutionalize and formalize oversight processes by which students, teachers, parents and guardians, community members, and experts from organizations such as ACLU Texas, The Immigrant Legal Resource Center, Texas Appleseed, and Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, convene to examine discipline, use of force, and arrest data from across the district. The way we discipline and police our students should be a matter of public concern, and all stakeholders should be involved in oversight.

This will constitute an enormous undertaking. But school discipline, student rights, and school policing are central social justice issues of our time. We should tackle these hard conversations together, without fear, in a process animated by hope for what might, in the near future, come to be. We should engage in a radical, transformative imaginary that faces the world as it us, while daring to imagine our schools as the spaces of liberation that our students and communities need, and that prefigure the future that they deserve.

Already students across the district are taking up the task of organizing around these demands, taking ownership of conversations that they should have led from the start. All they need from the rest of us is our solidarity and support as they reimagine their lives as students, leaders, and decision-makers in our schools.


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