Students Demand Great Schools and Face Repression

Students are standing up across the country to demand excellent public schools and local control. The adults that are in charge of their schools and supposed to be encouraging and educating them, are instead trying to shut down their voice, exclude them from the debate and even criminalize them while they are exercising their democratic rights. This repressive response from those who make decisions about our schools is blatantly undemocratic, racist and, unfortunately, typical of how they operate. Where’s the educational lesson in that?

Yesterday Cami Anderson, the Newark Schools chief, literally shut down her talk when students and parents came in to protest her “One Newark Plan” that relocated and converts many schools into charter schools.  The Newark schools were taken over by the state in 1995 and been struggling with financial instability, losing about $30 million a year to charter schools with per-pupil subsidies. Sharon Smith of Parents United for Local School Education tells the Washington Post:

“For us, what’s going on in Newark is not a triumph, it’s a tragedy,” said Sharon Smith, who has three children in that city’s public schools and was among about 40 parents and students who filled the 12th floor conference room at the American Enterprise Institute. “Our children are facing this disruption, and we don’t have a voice.”

One participant recounts her experience:

About 40 members of NJ Student Union, PULSE and NJ Communities United traveled by bus from Newark to DC today to confront Newark Superintendent Cami Anderson, who was the speaker at an event put on by the American Enterprise Institute. 

Most of the Newark parents and youth had registered for the event.  We all entered and took seats around the room.  As the room filled up, the folks at AEI guessed that something was up.  First, they asked everyone who had not registered to leave the room.  Pretty much no one moved.  This was followed by at least 30 minutes of hand-wringing and whispered discussions among AEI staff, at which point they announced that the event had been cancelled due to “security concerns inside the room.”

No one moved for a moment, but then the students did a “mic check” and one by one, began to testify, decrying conditions in their schools and asking why their own Superintendent was refusing to meet with them – not only in DC but also in Newark.  AEI staff then literally turned the lights out in the room.  In the pitch dark, the students filed out.  They held a spirited picket on the street in front of AEI for about 45 minutes.  AEI claimed, on our way out, that the interview with Anderson would be filmed in an in-house studio and that video of her remarks would be posted later today.

In Philadelphia, the attack on youth was especially aggressive and overt. On October 15, Philadelphia Student Union members peacefully protested the Philadelphia School District’s screeningof the anti-teacher movie “Won’t Back Down”. The screening was largely organized by School Reform Commissioner (SRC, Philadelphia’s unelected school board, appointed by the Governor and Mayor) member Sylvia Simms, the Women’s Christian Alliance, and Comcast (Simms’ current employer) a company that took in over $64 billion without paying taxes to Philadelphia in 2013 while our schools continue to go extremely under-funded. More reasons why students decided to take action are explained here.

They were met with hostility from Simms and others, who yelled insults in their faces, disrespecting the young people for exercising their democratic rights, and then brought in the police. This criminalizing response is all too familiar to students whose schools are heavily policed, while funding is slashed for essential resources like teachers and nurses. She screamed at the students that they “probably go to failing schools”. She later denied having ever said this and has stayed largely silent on the issue, despite newly released video evidence of the truth.

As the Philadelphia Student Union explains in their blog:

As the media has well publicized, Simms… screamed at the students, inches from their faces that they “probably go to failing schools” and “belong in jail.” Meanwhile her supporters chanted “Lock them up.”

At the SRC meeting the following day, there were several calls from allies for Simms to apologize to students, as both an adult and as a decision-maker for the School District of Philadelphia. However, she stayed silent...

In this same meeting, SRC Chair, Bill Green addressed the individuals at the meeting who demanded that Simms apologize defensively, claiming that Simms is a champion of students’ causes.

If Simms can violently scream at young people for "failing" while at the same time be hailed as a "supporter of students", then we can only imagine what the other SRC members are saying behind closed doors.

We spoke with Philadelphia Student Union (PSU) member Rodney Burney who is a Freshman at Dobbins High in Philadelphia. He participated in the action on October 15th.

Why were you protesting the film?

            We were protesting the movie “Won’t Back Down,” because it was saying that we should turn schools into charter schools because the teachers in public schools don’t teach. We all go to public schools and know that it’s nothing like how the movie tries to make it seem. We didn’t want the SRC to brainwash our parents. They wanted to show this movie to explain why they cut the teacher’s contract. We know how our teachers teach and how they feel about us so we understand how they feel about us and what they go through. They care and they treat us well because they know that education is the most important thing in life.

How did it feel when she yelled at you all?

She wanted to make us feel like criminals, like we were doing something wrong, but when she yelled it made the truth come out. The SRC is supposed to be for helping the schools, so if you think we go to failing schools, what are you doing to help stop us from going to failing schools? You’re making it seem like it’s our fault, but it’s actually the government and their cuts of the funding that’s failing us.

The SRC treats us like outcasts in our own town. An outcast is somebody that doesn’t get a say in what’s done. Basically they’re saying that we shouldn’t care about our education, it’s all in the SRC’s hands, our education, our community, our funding. They don’t want the students to have a voice. There is no student input!

They have no respect for us. She didn’t bring the security in, she brought in a bunch of cops that wanted to do an arrest. That’s stereotyping students as bad, ignorant, and messing stuff up. Bringing in cops is telling us that they want us to go jail and that they don’t want us to succeed. That’s nothing new to students in Philadelphia. There are also a lot of officers in the schools. They’re investing in police but not nurses, while they’re building prisons. They think they’re going to take resources out of the schools, then blame it on kids. When students then get pushed out they can end up in prison.

That’s how we get treated in general. Everything for our education and our future is not in our hands. It’s all in these adult’s hands. We need students in the meetings since we know what we need in our schools in Philadelphia. We’re going to these schools, the education depends on us, why is it in the hands of the SRC. What are we going to be without education? 

That’s why we want the SRC abolished and local control of our schools given to the community. PSU calls for an elected school board.

I fight with PSU because I want my education and they’re fighting for the schools, When I came here from Tallahassee, I saw how they don’t even have any nurses in schools, but there are so many cops, while they keep cutting funding. That’s why we fight for our schools.

What do you want to say to Ms. Simms?

I would ask her why do you say we go to failing schools? Why aren’t you helping our failing schools!! I’d ask that to the whole SRC.