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Young Justice Leader Aissa Dearing Leads Campaign to Get Police Out of Schools

July 27, 2020
Sarah Natchipolsky

How did you get into youth justice reform work?

I started with a nonprofit called Made in Durham, which works to remove barriers in Durham Public Schools for students of color. I didn't get involved in the youth justice aspect of that work until I started working with the Youth Justice Project at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice, where we focus specifically on the removal of school resource officers and how we can break up the school to prison pipeline. I was definitely more into racial equity work as a whole, not criminal justice and justice specifically, so I kind of evolved into looking at the other intersections of the issue.

At first, we started asking for reforms instead of asking for the removal of school resource officers entirely. We pushed for more transparency, oversight and accountability with the sheriff's department. It’s a year later, and we didn't get any of those reforms. Now we’re saying tear it all down.

Can you tell me about efforts to get police officers out of Durham Public Schools and how you were involved? 

When I first got involved with the Youth Justice Project, we hosted a town hall in April of 2019 to bring students, parents, concerned teachers, school administrators and school resource officers together to talk about the definition of safety and what makes students feel safe. We discussed why we have school resource officers and tried to reimagine what students and teachers want, because they're the primary stakeholders in Durham Public Schools. From that town hall, we developed the reform proposals I mentioned earlier. During that process, I played more of a social media and communications role – talking to the press and handling logistics.

Later in August of last year, my friend and I, who is also in the Youth Justice Project, founded the Durham Youth Climate Justice Initiative. That's when I started to take on a leadership and community organizing role in my area. After the murder of George Floyd, and as the concept of “defunding the police” became less controversial in Durham, I decided to write an open letter to Durham Public Schools in early June to ask for the immediate removal of school resource officers and reallocate some of those funds to mental health professionals like therapists, counselors, social workers, nurses – things that you would need after pandemic! That letter blew up on Instagram, and we got 3000 people to sign on, including current and former  students, teachers, the Durham Association of Educators and some racial equity directors in Durham Public Schools.

When I sent it to the board of education in Durham, they gave me kind of a funky response like, “Wow! Look at all the great work you're doing, but I'm still not going to listen to what you're saying.” After getting that response, Durham Public Schools then put out a public statement saying that they are going to affirm their relationship with school resource officers and the sheriff's department and that their contract is intentional about breaking the school-to-prison pipeline, which is absolutely crazy. In their public statement, they also mentioned “Oh, we're just trying to keep our primary stakeholders safe.” I decided to organize a march for black students to prove that we are the primary stakeholders that Durham Public Schools keeps referring to. We had the march and they responded by saying that they see where we’re coming from, but they don’t have a replacement plan.”

Now, we are holding a youth summit this month on Zoom to talk to students from across Durham Public Schools about safety, our stories and experiences with school resource officers and what we'd like to see. From that, we imagine a proposal being written and that we will send it to the Board of Education. I'm not sure whether the Board of Education is going to take this proposal seriously. We've had some serious doubts on their ability to affirm their public commitments to young people.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in being a youth justice advocate?

Being a young person is the hardest part about advocating in youth justice. It's very tokenizing.  A perfect example of this is when I was on the public radio show, “The State of Things” on our local NPR station. I was clearly cast in the role as the young person who had the experience of being in school, but I’m also capable of answering the statistical and political questions that come around with youth justice and school resource officers. Not only do young people have all of this lived experience, which is super valuable, but we also can speak the policy language. We can run the numbers and lead the marches. There are so many organizations that have youth partnerships that are super tokenizing.

How do you think NJJN can best support young justice leaders like you?

I went to the NJJN conference last year; it was hella fun. I loved it. I know that young people were paid to do some of the organizing work behind the conference. I think NJJN could do better in letting young people take leadership roles in management or logistical organizing or social media and communications – and paying young people to do so. Just pay your young people, that's literally the best thing you can do. In the nonprofit world in Durham, a lot of organizations like to boast their partnerships with young people, yet they have more internship positions, not supervising or leadership positions. I think young people are more than deserving and more than qualified to lead this work, and they should be compensated for it.

What is your vision for youth justice?

My vision is to see the termination of Durham Public Schools’ contract with the sheriff's department and the immediate removal of school resource officers. I'd like to also see restorative practice centers used instead of in-school suspension and out-of-school suspension, which is widely used in Durham County. I'd also like to see more programs like Teen Court and other misdemeanor diversion programs that help resolve disputes without establishing a permanent record. That's what we're working towards with this whole campaign – to move away from punitive and permanent ways of punishment to something that's ultimately better for society as a whole.


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