How Afro-Latina Pilar Barreyro is Fighting to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Chris Alfonso

Pilar Barreyro is an activist fighting to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. The 26-year-old Argentine-Jamaican is a campaigns associate at Do Something, where she led the “Suspended for What” campaign, which aimed to amplify unfair school punishment and give young people the tools they need to challenge this issue in their schools and communities. Here’s her story, as told to Raquel Reichard.

As a teenager, entering high school each morning felt more like a prep for prison rather than the Ivory Tower.

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To make it into a classroom at my Washington, D.C. educational institution, I first had to put my backpack through an X-ray conveyor belt. I then walked through a metal detector and swiped my student ID to verify my status as a student. Between walking to algebra or English class, I might spot a mix of school resource officers and police presence.

While it wasn't the most nefarious public school environment, it also wasn't a welcoming school experience where students could be nurtured to academic success. And now, as an adult and campaigns associate at Do Something, a nonprofit motivating young people to make positive change, I know that it’s not. My alma mater, like thousands of other educational institutions across the nation, is engaged in one of the biggest criminal injustice issues of our generation: the school-to-prison pipeline.

 

This explains how schools funnel students, especially those of color and those with disabilities, into the criminal justice system through zero-tolerance policies and harsh punishments, like out-of-school suspensions, expulsions or even arrests.

Cops’ presence on school campuses only serves to escalate this problem. Between 1997 and 2007, the number of police officers based in schools has increased by a third. They were allegedly positioned in schools to prevent mass shootings, but they are more often there to be used as a way for schools to discipline young people.

According to a 2009 article published in the Journal of Criminal Justice, schools with officers have five times as many arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without them. Even more, Black and brown students are more likely to be criminalized than their white peers. In fact, a National Center for Education Statistics, School Crime and Safety survey found that schools are more likely to have an officer on their campus if a majority of its students are nonwhite. But that's not because there are more crimes taking place in these schools. According to Jason Lanberg, the supervising attorney of Advocates for Children, a project of Legal Aid of North Carolina, while students of color don't act up more often than whites (and are taken to the principal's office at similar rates), the darker their hue, the more likely the student will end up with a serious punishment. When white students do receive extreme penalties, it's most likely for provable offenses, like smoking or vandalism, while Black students are often given the same punishments for subjective reasons, like talking back.

This has a major impact on our English-language learner students, whose behaviors and even words may be misinterpreted by faculty and on-campus officers. As a result, this creates an even more vulnerable situation for undocumented students, who risk arrest and, consequently, deportation for minor school offenses – or innocent actions misconstrued as misconduct.

 

The problem is also gendered, making girls of color a double target. Through the school-to-prison pipeline, laughing loud, acting sassy and being perceived as hypersexual, as many Black and Latina girls are, is often criminalized. Through school dress codes, it’s not just the behaviors of girls of color that are deemed as inappropriate but also their attire and aesthetic. With this combination, Black and brown girls are twice as likely as their white peers to experience harsh school discipline.

Anyone who cares about the future of this country should be concerned with the school-to-prison pipeline. After all, those young people we are kicking out of school and throwing charges at are our future. And on-campus police presence as well as extreme school punishments are having a negative impact on them. Studies show that harsh school discipline, whether you’re targeted or not, lead to lower academic performances and decreased confidence and motivation. That makes sense when you realize that about 3.5 million U.S. students are suspended annually, resulting in almost 18 million lost days of instruction. This is putting our children behind on their reading and math levels, which is increasing the number of dropouts. Without a high school diploma, their chances for higher education or lucrative careers decrease, while the likelihood they’ll end up behind bars skyrockets. In fact, dropouts are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested than high school graduates.

That’s why Do Something started its "Suspended for What" campaign, which empowered young people to help dismantle and take action against the school-to-prison pipeline by amplifying their voices and showing them how to advocate on their own campuses.

More than 44,736 young people participated in the campaign, sharing 6,105 stories of harsh school discipline, with many of them not even realizing their experiences were a part of the school-to-prison pipeline. Many of the young women discussed how they were policed for what they put on their bodies, while several disabled students talked about how they were targeted for a physical or mental health condition. Across the board, students expressed that because of their interactions with police officers on their school campuses, they didn’t trust or feel safe around them.

 

I had a one-on-one session with every young person who was active in the campaign, starting with a customized report of what school discipline should look like in their district, what’s actually going on in their school and offering them tools they could use to create change on their campuses.

For starters, knowledge is power. Knowing a school’s arrest and suspension rates, compared to others, is an ideal place to begin. And you can find much of this information through UCLA’s Civil Rights Data Collection. Armed with the information, students should consider attending school board of education meetings and putting in a proposal to have a conversation on the topic of harsh discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline. If accessible, they should also talk with their state superintendent of education. Show them suspension rates. Ask them questions. Confront them with the reality of their decisions and let them know it’s hurting their young people.

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Schools are supposed to be strong pathways to healthy development for our children. If they are acting out, they need to be able to speak with guidance counselors, social workers, psychologists and trusted teachers in a safe space where these issues, which may stem from trauma, can be dealt with healthily, not compounded by being pushed into a violent criminal justice system. That doesn’t help anyone, especially not our young people.

Learn more about the "Suspended for What” campaign at Do Something.