Asha Lane is an 18-year-old senior at the International High School of New Orleans, a charter high school. Asha wanted to find out why New Orleans charter schools don’t always feel nurturing. We live in a dangerous city, but when does security feel unsafe?
Educators now know that punitive school discipline helps create what’s known as the “school to prison pipeline.” According to the Department of Education, this pipeline refers to school policies and practices that can push schoolchildren out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. The pipeline is built upon inadequate school resources, harsh discipline practices, suspension, expulsion and also school climate.
“So when I walk into the building of my school, on both sides of the hallway, there’s a security guard on each side,” says Asha. “And then when you go up the steps on each level, there’s a security guard on each side. The security guards they have on white shirts with a badge, black slacks, and a belt with a walkie-talkie, and a gun strapped to their waist — kinda like police officers. It just doesn’t make me feel like I’m in a space where I’m welcome, and I feel like I’m in a space where I’m just supposed to be controlled. And it just doesn’t feel safe for me to learn.”
I asked her to help report this story.
“So, I’m doing a radio show called Unprisoned with WWNO,” Asha explains to another student. “Does your school make you feel like you’re in prison?”
“Yes,” he answers.
Asha attends the International High School of New Orleans. It’s a B-rated school. She feels the security and discipline procedures at her school are extreme. So does one of her classmates, Christy.
“I was in math class and a security guard came into our classroom and he has a gun on the side of his hip,” says Christy. “I just — I don’t want to see them when I’m trying to get taught a lesson.”
“I think it’s very disturbing when we have police officers patrolling hallways and classrooms who are armed and have guns and batons,” says Thena Robinson Mock, a civil rights attorney currently based in Pennsylvania. Mock says anytime you have a person patrolling a school with a weapon, it’s fair to call them a police officer.
Ms. Robinson Mock has worked on ending the school to prison pipeline for years, some of them in New Orleans. She says there are schools all over the country whose discipline and security procedures are far more severe than necessary for dealing with children.
“We are living in a different age now where folks are — particularly young people —are very aware of how police officers are carrying out policing in communities of color,” says Robinson Mock. “So I think that it sends a very bad message to young people, and it also creates an environment in school that’s somewhat negative.”
“On social media, we see security guards slam kids on the floor, and at my school it happens as well,” says Asha. “We fear that could happen to us at any moment. The school is tense. The security guards yell and treat us like we’re inmates. They routinely grab students by their shirts, and they’re big guys, so they often physically pick kids up off the floor. When there’s a fight, they don’t hesitate to tackle students. My friend Ronnie thinks they’re setting exactly the wrong example.”
“It’s like they’re trying to solve violence with violence. And we’re not in a prison, this is school,” Ronnie says. “We’re supposed to be here to get our education. If you want to teach us something, how about you teach us not to solve violence with violence? And stop putting your hands on us and we might stop putting our hands on each other?”
We reached out, several times, to the principal at Asha’s high school. We never heard back. But we did hear from other school leaders — like Jerel Bryant, the principal at Caver Collegiate Academy, a C-rated school.
“In a perfect world, do I want security booths?” asks Bryant. “No. Do I want metal detectors? No.” But, he says, “it only takes one incident for a school to really regret, and have to ask and answer questions. And in New Orleans high schools safety is still something that is not guaranteed. And you have to plan for it and prioritize it. Again, when I imagine building my dream school, is that a part of it? No. Am I aware of all the indications and signals that can send? Especially to young black men, when you have to first thing, maybe see a security guard, and what that could mean to you? Yeah.”
“Principal Bryant is African American,” says Asha. “He has an older brother who’s been incarcerated. He sounded genuine. When he took us on a tour of Carver Collegiate, he greeted every student we passed by name. It wasn’t what I expected. Before I went to visit Carver, I heard a different story.”
“So at Carver — it’s like a prison. We walk in lines all day,” says Devin, a Carver student.
“The lines Devin is talking about were on the hallways of Carver’s campus. Students had to walk on them. If they stepped outside the lines, there were consequences,” explains Asha.
“How does that make you feel?” Asha asks.
“Like I’m not getting my full high school experience,” replies Devin. “This is preparing me for something I don’t want to be. I don’t want to be a criminal. I don’t want to be going to jail, but it’s like they’re preparing me for it anyway.”
“The Carver Collegiate students spoke up about the lines,” explains Asha. “And the administration listened. The lines are no longer there. Principal Bryant says Carver has learned a lot from seniors like Devin. He says they’re trailblazers who helped the school evolve.”
But, Asha wonders, “why is one New Orleans school so different from another?”
“One of the things that’s somewhat of a challenge is that because most of the schools in New Orleans are charter schools, discipline policies can sometimes vary from school to school,” says Thena Robinson Mock. “And because you don’t have a centralized system, you can go to one school where they’re implementing restorative justice in a very positive way — but then you can to go to another school, literally across the street, that might be implementing things very differently.”
Harold Clay is principal of Edna Karr High School, an A-rated school. He shows Asha how his students enter school each day, complete with a schoolbag and lunch bag check.
“So they’ll come in in the morning, explains Clay, “and they’ll go through these metal detectors. And they’ll have two tables. Girls in one line, boys in one line, put their bags on there. They’ll go through it, and just move on.”
“The more I talked to Principal Clay — who was relaxed, and likeable, and had a full, perfectly shaped beard —the more confused I was about how students understand and feel about security at Edna Karr,” says Asha.
“Our society is moving in a direction where it’s not safe to go to church, a movie, and school,” explains Clay. “And so to take a position not to ensure safety for kids, when they just want to learn, especially when we recognize crime stats in the area and what’s happening, is irresponsible.”
“Principal Clay puts a good spin on his school, but what he was saying didn’t match what I was hearing from his students,” says Asha. “Principal Clay says security is only there to make sure his students are safe to learn, not to guard the students. In fact, Principal Clay doesn’t call them security guards.”
“Our security counselors don’t have any police type of uniform,” says Clay.
“What’s a security counselor?” asks a senior at Edna Karr. “Cause I’ve never heard of security counselors before.” She tells Asha that going through a metal detector makes her feel like a criminal. And it makes her look at the security guards in the same light.
“How do you reference security at your school?” Asha asks. “Do you say security guards? Or do you say—”
“Oh no, it’s EKPD.”
“EKPD. What is EKPD?”
“Edna Karr Police Department.”
“I got interested in the whole issue of school security after moving here from outside of Baltimore two years ago,” Asha explains. “I wondered why schools in New Orleans are so different from the ones I grew up with. Was all this security necessary?”
“Violence is always going to be a concern at any school,” says Thena Robinson Mock. “I think, though, that what we have learned over the years in implementing more positive disciplinary responses to violence is that tightening up one’s police, metal detectors, actually runs counter to this message of peace and calm and a nurturing learning environment. And that’s really what’s needed in order to either prevent violence or address it.”
“That’s what I’m talking about, a place I want to go every day,” says Asha. “Back in Maryland, when I stepped off the school bus, it was chill. People would sit in the cafeteria eating breakfast or stand together in the halls listening to music. I felt safe. I felt like a kid going to school.”
Asha Lane is headed to Bard College in New York, in the fall. She plans to study sociology.
Unprisoned: Stories From The System is produced by Eve Abrams and brought to you by New Orleans Public Radio and Finding America, a national initiative produced by AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Incorporated, and with financial support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Wyncote Foundation, the John D and Catherine T MacArthur Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts.