By Angela M. Coggs
On Wednesday, March 9, over 100 community members and parents gathered at Life Center Church in San Bernardino for a town hall meeting to address public officials about a crisis of imprisonment that is fueled by the school-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration, and high rates of prisoner recidivism. The meeting began with an outstanding dramatic monologue from actor and C.O.P.E.’s resident artist, Mr. Amad Jackson. His performance focused on ending the cycle of mass incarceration. The audience was encouraged by his noteworthy delivery.
The community concerns addressed in the meeting were: Challenging the use of citations that prevent students from getting a driver’s license and enlisting in the military, ensuring that San Bernardino county spends money on intervention/prevention programs and not prison, and making sure that school funding serves those most in need of academic support. The goal was to make the community voices heard with decision-makers who have the authority and power to do something about the community’s concerns.
San Bernardino County Supervisors, Josie Gonzales and San Bernardino County School Board Members, Hardy Brown Jr., San Bernardino County Schools Earl Smith, San Bernardino City Unified Director of Student Services Ray Culberson, and San Bernardino City School Board Members, Barbara Flores, and Gwendolyn Rogers, and Danny Tillman were all in attendance.
The town hall meeting, organized by Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement (COPE), intended to keep public officials focused on the school-to-prison pipeline and concerns that the excessive use of citations and arrests that could otherwise be handled apart from law enforcement involvement, could keep students in a never ending school-to-prison trap. As school board members in San Bernardino City Unified School District continue to press for a new discipline policy that would, among many things, reform the district’s practices on school citations and school-based arrests, the town hall illuminated citations as a county—wide crisis.
Testimonies from two parents from the Rialto Unified School District highlighted the need for a county-wide look at discipline policies involving school citations. Charnice Miller, shared a story about her daughter who was cited for a fight in which she defended herself after notifying the school administrator that she was being bullied. The parent and student were never provided with an alternative to suspension and expulsion, nor adequately informed about the citation process but was mandated to pay a $400 fine. A similar story shared by another Rialto parent highlighted the pain and trauma her son experienced as a result of an incident in which he was ultimately found innocent but that landed him a ten day suspension. San Bernardino City School Board Member Barbara Flores agreed that the problem lies in “the way we (the district) communicate with our parents because right now it is unacceptable.”
Another parent shared a heart wrenching story about how her son, a SBCUSD graduate from Cajon High School, is still dealing with the effects of a school citation while away in college. From the campus of Howard University, Brandon Watts shared a video testimony of how a citation issued in the 8th grade, may now impact his eligibility for a summer internship in the White House. He urged public officials to take a different approach because citations can do a lot of harm. The SBCUSD motto is to “Make Hope Happen” but the constant issuance of citations to students is not giving the students hope, it is in fact discouraging the students. They are not feeling hopeful.
When questioned about what the San Bernardino City Unified School District board members intend to do to ensure that San Bernardino Local Control Accountability Plan (LCAP) money is earmarked for school funding , alternative discipline, as well as other intervention programs such as mental health programs so that students are adequately supported, SBCUSD Board Member Rodgers responded without hesitation. “What we are making sure is that funding is targeted to support necessary for the specific students that are more at risk, which we all know is the majority of all of our students. The targeted funding what we have and we know that funding is on a limited bases but we have to make sure we maximize it in every way that we can.” She spoke about specific line items that are set for the specific needs and for the specific things that the community and parents have brought to the Board’s attention.
“This is a critical time because once that money is allocated it definitely can change from year to year,” SBCUSD Board Member Tillman also added. The school district has been making positive changes on behalf of the students. “Two big things that we (the school district) did do was to ensure that all students have the ability to have access to a computer and the internet. Every student in our district can get one computer per household.” He also stated that school pays the monthly payment for the internet access. Secondly, Tillman stated that they also eliminated the wait list for the CAPS Program. “This past year the wait list went away. That cost us about three or four million dollars.”
On the other end of the pipeline, a testimony from a formerly incarcerated female, who is now drug free, working, and giving back to community, shares a story of redemption and what is possible when there are resources available. Demita Burgess, a San Bernardino resident, urged the County to make sure that Proposition 47 meets its intended outcomes and give people a second chance to be productive citizens. In 2014, California voters passed Proposition 47, a ballot measure to reduce some felony records to misdemeanors and uses the savings from prison spending for intervention and prevention services such as drug treatment and mental health services. The savings may also be directed to youth intervention and prevention programs. However, according to Governor Brown the savings from prison spending only amounts to approximately $29 million when the Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) says that the savings is closer to $100 million dollars. Community members urged County Supervisor Josie Gonzalez and other officials to join a statewide effort urging the Governor to adopt the LAO’s calculations so that resources can be properly utilized for adult and youth intervention and prevention efforts. The collective voices have the power to dismantle the pipeline.
The break a cycle imprisonment, community members want public officials to take action by instituting policies that undo the cycle and place youth and adults in a better position to be productive citizens.
This effort was organized by Congregations Organized for Prophetic Engagement in partnership with Inland Congregations United for Change, Youth Action Project, Inland Empire Concerned African American Churches, African American Mental Health Coalition, and members of the African American Education Collaborative.
“I was very inspired to become more involved in the community and school boards to ensure our children has the same chance and opportunities as their neighboring peers,” said Alondra Ladison, San Bernardino County Site Supervisor Preschool Services Department. She left the meeting enlighted and ready to stand up for all of our children.
With the input and feedback from the community hopefully the San Bernardino City Unified School District will depart from its current code of conduct, which is based on a zero-tolerance approach, and make a strong commitment to an approach that is grounded in teaching and learning, interventions and restorative practices.