How Is That Legal?: Breaking Down Systemic Racism One Law at a Time

Black Children's Bodies Are Sanctuaries

March 01, 2023 Community Legal Services of Philadelphia Season 2 Episode 5
Black Children's Bodies Are Sanctuaries
How Is That Legal?: Breaking Down Systemic Racism One Law at a Time
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How Is That Legal?: Breaking Down Systemic Racism One Law at a Time
Black Children's Bodies Are Sanctuaries
Mar 01, 2023 Season 2 Episode 5
Community Legal Services of Philadelphia

Educators can legally hit students at school in 19 states, but school-based violence is forcing young people with marginalized identities out of school everywhere.

Ashley Sawyer joins us to discuss the legacy of racial discrimination in education policy and systems of school-based violence. She lays out how the school-to-prison pipeline, pushout, sexual harassment, and corporal punishment force young people with marginalized identities out of school, and she calls attention to the demands of Black and Latina girls who are organizing to create safe, healing, and supportive schools. Finally, Ashley urges policymakers to make radical investments in young people, schools, families, and communities to address the root causes of violence and harm. 

Trigger Warning: Ashley shares graphic stories about what's happening to young people in schools. This conversation also includes topics that may not be appropriate for young children.


Ashley Sawyer (@ACSawyerJustice) is a Senior Staff Attorney on the Opportunity to Lead (Education) team at Advancement Project. Ashley’s life work is situated where education and the criminal justice system collide, and she has previously served at Girls for Gender Equity, Youth Represent, and the Education Law Center.

If you enjoy this show and want to help fight poverty and injustice, consider making a donation to Community Legal Services today! You can also follow us on Twitter @CLSphila to stay connected.

How Is That Legal is a podcast from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and Rowhome Productions. Jake Nussbaum is our Producer and Editor. Executive Producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers. Special thanks to Caitlin Nagel, Zakya Hall, and Farwa Zaidi. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

Support the Show.

Show Notes Transcript

Educators can legally hit students at school in 19 states, but school-based violence is forcing young people with marginalized identities out of school everywhere.

Ashley Sawyer joins us to discuss the legacy of racial discrimination in education policy and systems of school-based violence. She lays out how the school-to-prison pipeline, pushout, sexual harassment, and corporal punishment force young people with marginalized identities out of school, and she calls attention to the demands of Black and Latina girls who are organizing to create safe, healing, and supportive schools. Finally, Ashley urges policymakers to make radical investments in young people, schools, families, and communities to address the root causes of violence and harm. 

Trigger Warning: Ashley shares graphic stories about what's happening to young people in schools. This conversation also includes topics that may not be appropriate for young children.


Ashley Sawyer (@ACSawyerJustice) is a Senior Staff Attorney on the Opportunity to Lead (Education) team at Advancement Project. Ashley’s life work is situated where education and the criminal justice system collide, and she has previously served at Girls for Gender Equity, Youth Represent, and the Education Law Center.

If you enjoy this show and want to help fight poverty and injustice, consider making a donation to Community Legal Services today! You can also follow us on Twitter @CLSphila to stay connected.

How Is That Legal is a podcast from Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and Rowhome Productions. Jake Nussbaum is our Producer and Editor. Executive Producers are Alex Lewis and John Myers. Special thanks to Caitlin Nagel, Zakya Hall, and Farwa Zaidi. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions.

Support the Show.

Kee Tobar (00:05):

Hello everyone and welcome to How Is That Legal, the podcast where we break down examples of systemic racial inequity in the law and policy and talk to experts whose stories of injustice will make you ask, "How in the world is that legal?" I'm your host, Kee Tobar. I'm a legal aid attorney, history enthusiast and Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.


Today, my good friend and policy extraordinaire, Ashley Sawyer, joins us to discuss the legacy of racial discrimination in education policy. Ashley is the Senior Staff Attorney at Advancement Project. Her life work is situated at the intersection of education, justice and the criminal legal system, and she previously held roles at Girls for Gender Equity, Youth Represent and the Education Law Center.


We've talked a lot on the show about the importance of building community with people around us, and I feel fortunate to have Ashley as part of my own community. Though we've been friends for a long time unfortunately, our conversation today is not light by any means. Together we discussed the systems of school-based violence and harm that forced young people out of school, especially students with marginalized identities.


Ashley breaks down how the school-to-prison pipeline, pushout, school-based sexual harassment, and corporal punishment disproportionately impact Black and Brown youth, particularly Black girls, and young people who are gender nonconforming or LGBTQ+. You'll probably ask yourself how is that legal at least a dozen times in this episode. But you'll also be inspired by the transformative work that Ashley and other grassroots organizers across the country are doing to create schools that are safe, healing, and supportive environments for young people.


Before we begin, I need to warn you that this is a potentially triggering discussion. Ashley shares graphic stories about what's happening to young people in schools, so please do what you need to take care of yourself while listening. Also, this conversation includes topics that may not be appropriate for young children.


Welcome Ashley Sawyer to the show. I know you from our time together, you at Educational Law Center, me at Juvenile Law Center respectively. Can you introduce yourself to the audience?

Ashley Sawyer (02:13):

Sure. So my name is Ashley Sawyer, she and her pronouns, and I'm a Senior Staff Attorney at a racial justice law office called Advancement Project based in DC, but we provide legal strategy campaigns and comms support for a lot of amazing radical organizations across the US. And I've been practicing law for a while, but got my start here in Philly and we got to kick off our careers sort of here together.

Kee Tobar (02:41):

Awesome. So can you tell everyone your area of expertise? I mean for me, your area of expertise is everything, but specifically.

Ashley Sawyer (02:52):

This is my friend, everybody. I think expertise sounds so strong, but an area that I've spent a lot of time working on would be the intersection of the criminal legal system, juvenile legal system and education and how young people, particularly Black girls get criminalized in schools, in and around schools. And I've done some work in the criminal legal system in New York and mitigation, trying to keep young people out of jail, trying to keep young people out of the criminal legal system, and then also trying to help them put the pieces of their lives back together. And then a lot of campaigns and organizing work when I was at Girls for Gender Equity focused on Black girls and centering their success, wellness and wholeness.

Kee Tobar (03:36):

So what brought you to national education policy organizing and legal work?

Ashley Sawyer (03:42):

That's a complicated question because I don't know that I always wanted to be doing national work. I always wanted to be local and community with people, but in this moment it feels really useful to be able to have a bird's eye view of what's happening on the national scale and be able to use that information to support local organizers. But I came to this particular type of work because I care deeply about Black liberation and I think that schools can be sites of a lot of violence and harm or they could have the potential to be places of liberation and healing and also places where young people can build critical thinking and think about the world in a different way.


And I wanted to make sure that Black youth, queer and trans youth girls have access to schools that provide them that space to grow and learn in safety and grow and learn in peaceful environments.

Kee Tobar (04:36):

I love that. So the name of the show is How is That Legal? Nearly every day, especially as a person in the poverty law space, I find myself asking that question, how is this legal? Can you describe a time when you asked yourself the same thing?

Ashley Sawyer (04:53):

Oh my gosh. All the time. Constantly, constantly, constantly. When I started in Philadelphia at the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, I was constantly asking myself, how is this legal? How is this moral? How can this be happening in a so-called democracy? And one of the examples I was thinking about was young people, particularly Black and Brown, young people from Philly schools, getting sent all the way over to Western Pennsylvania to juvenile prisons and not receiving any education at all. Or the education they were receiving was packets and little programs that weren't actually doing that anything for them. And consistently meeting people who had been through the juvenile legal system system in Pennsylvania who had never had their needs met. And then also on top of that who experienced abuse, harm, violence, and the state was paying for it.


The city was paying, the school district of Philadelphia was paying, to send young people to places that treated them horribly and expecting something. I don't know what they were expecting actually. I think there was a complete and total comfort with the disposability of Black youth. And there was a complete complacency on the part of people in local government, state government. And now that I don't work anymore, I can say these kind of things, but there was a lot of hesitancy to name the real violence and harm that was happening when I first came here. And there was a lot of hesitancy to acknowledge that these systems just did not work. And I asked myself, how is this legal? How is it legal to send children away to facilities to be abused and pay for it? How can we do that and say that is legal and fair and this is a just system.


And I just to this day still don't understand that.

Kee Tobar (06:45):

So you're using things like abused and violence. Can you be specific as to some of the type of examples of that? Because people are going to be like, okay.

Ashley Sawyer (06:55):

Yeah, people think that I'm being hyperbolic when I use words abuse and violence, but I'm not. When I was in New York, I was doing more campaigns and organizing, less legal work, but I was visiting New York City public schools pretty frequently. And I saw kids get cussed out, straight up cussed out by the school cops for not taking off their belt fast enough when they went through the metal detector in the morning. So I always give the analogy of imagine going through TSA at the airport every freaking morning when you go to work, every single day. And maybe other people have pleasant experiences through TSA, but in Newark, the airport I go through, it is not pleasant.


And I say that it's like, I lightheartedly explain to people, imagine just being at a heightened adrenaline level, a stress level every single day you go to school. And sometimes young people would talk about waiting outside in the cold, in the rain, in the snow because the line is so long to go through the metal detectors when they get to school each morning. And then once they get in the building, they're getting yelled at because they have bobby pins in their hair. They're literally, I remember this school cop NYPD officer yelling at a student because he couldn't take his belt off fast enough and he's cursing at him. And that's just like how young people start their day every day. You can't tell me that that's a safe, healthy environment. And when I talk about Black girls, they're being policed because their skirt is too short or their acrylics are too long or whatever.


A lot of it is about scarves and bonnets. If you have a scarf or a bonnet on when you come to school, there's a lot of body policing around that and a lot of judgment, a lot of ridicule from adults about Black girls coming to school just trying to show up and they just show up the best that they can. And sometimes that means a bonnet or a scarf on their head. It's also just part of a cultural tradition. And so I think it is violent for Black girls to be told constantly, you are behaving poorly or you're being "ghetto" because you are not conforming to what we think of as appropriate clothing or because your body is too curvy or your gender presentation doesn't align with what adults in your school think your gender presentation should be. And so if you think you're going to dress this particular way, we're going to yell at you.


When I was in New York, I also did a lot of work at the intersection of the juvenile, at that time it was the criminal legal system in New York. Young people could be tried as adults at 16 automatically. So I was doing criminal work with 16, 17, 18 year olds. And I just never forget one young person I met on Rikers being like when she got arrested, the cop was very brutal with her and rough with her and was basically, if you want to dress like a boy, I'm going to treat you like a boy. And treated her harshly. And I'm going to pause here because I'm going to tell a story that's going to be kind of triggering, so you just tell me.

Kee Tobar (09:52):

Go ahead.

Ashley Sawyer (09:52):

Okay. I also remember other young people talking about cavity searches in the park. NYPD would be like, "Oh, we think you have drugs." This is before marijuana decriminalization or legalization. If you are in the park smoking weed with your friends or maybe not even smoking weed with your friends, cops would pull them over, stop them and strip search them essentially in public or put their hands on their body or their private parts and be like, "Oh, what are you doing? Do you have drugs?"


And young people couldn't do anything about it because the NYPD is basically an army and has an incredible amount of power and influence over city and state government in New York and young people are super vulnerable because they don't have places to hang out. It's not like they can just smoke weed in the privacy of their own homes. Do you know what I mean? You're always exposed, you're always vulnerable. And when I think about Black girls, particularly school sometimes was a sight of violence and harm because you might be getting sexually harassed, young people might be grabbing your butt or grabbing your breast, or teachers are just being rude to you or disrespectful or if you arrive late they're cussing you out, not considering all of the reasons that you might be arriving late.


And then you go out into the community, you're experiencing street harassment, people calling you names or whatever, and then you maybe end up in the criminal legal system or the juvenile legal system and you're being sexually assaulted or harassed or strip searched or any number of examples of violence and harm. But yes, there's a lot of violence and harm to vulnerable young people in and around schools that is prevalent and it disproportionately impacts Black young people.

Kee Tobar (11:36):

Thank you for those examples because for some maybe their experience at school wasn't as violent, but others, I think sometimes we have convenient amnesia about what it was like. I can remember things occurring at our schools that were very much so similar to jail as I got older. So when you're talking about those things, I know for a fact that they are true and they are happening and this is not you just kind of be using extreme or radical language as it relates to that.


So when I learned we will have you on the show, I was so excited to talk with you about the legacy of racial discrimination in education policy. One of those legacies that I would like to begin this conversation with is the school to prison pipeline. First, can you define for the audience what we mean when we say the school to prison pipeline?

Ashley Sawyer (12:28):

Sure. So the school to prison pipeline is usually defined as a system of policies and practices that have a tendency to push young people out of the school environment and into the juvenile legal system, the criminal legal system or other types of harm. And usually it happens through suspensions, expulsions, school-based arrest, but it can also be broader and more expansive and happen through unsupportive environments or school-based sexual harassment. A myriad of other factors that make it so that a young person does not feel like they can learn and feel safe in school. And then once they're removed or pushed out of the school environment, they end up falling into other harmful systems.

Kee Tobar (13:13):

Who is most impacted by this pipeline?

Ashley Sawyer (13:17):

Overwhelmingly, the students who are impacted by the school-to-prison pipeline or pushed out are Black, Latine, indigenous, queer and trans young people disproportionately. That's not to say that it doesn't affect all students, but it absolutely targets marginalized students.

Kee Tobar (13:34):

Is there a connection in your estimation between the war on drugs and the zero tolerance policies that were enabled by schools?

Ashley Sawyer (13:42):

A hundred percent. I am sure that there are people who have written books about this and who are really experts, but I'll just sort of speak from my observation and my studying. The war on drugs, as we know it really kicks off in the eighties, maybe late seventies. I think some people attribute it also to Richard Nixon, but really people associate it with Reagan, Reaganomics.


And so there's this time where we're seeing recession and austerity measures. So economics are hard, people are struggling financially, and then they're also seeing harm in violence in communities. And so the response, instead of meeting the basic needs that people have, food, clothing, shelter, addressing poverty, the government's response was focus on drugs. It's comical when you think about it because it's like we're going to ignore all of the real problems and the real underlying causes. We won't get at the root of it. Let's just focus on the most random thing and really criminalize it in a way that specifically targets Black, Brown, indigenous people. And so we see that trickling into schools. So as there was a tough on crime mentality in communities, particularly Black and Brown communities, there also becomes a quote, unquote, tough on crime mentality in schools. You start hearing phrases like zero tolerance.


We all know the framing that came from people like Rudy Giuliani, who was mayor of New York. New York City, had a reputation for being violent or dangerous. And to sort of make capitalists feel comfortable bringing their businesses to New York and making New York a fun place for families, they had to create this narrative around we're going to be tough. And people like Hillary Clinton calling young Black kids super predators. And saying that under the belief that there's these bad people out here who are ruining our communities, ruining our neighborhoods, and if we just go hard on them, lock them up, let the police do whatever they want to them, it will create safety for everyone. And we know that that's not what happened. Then we also have narratives around school violence, right? I'm sure you've seen the movies with Morgan Freeman or Hillary Swank or wherever, where the kids or the young people, excuse me, are seen as basically portrayed as wild animals in some of these films.


And the reputation or the belief was that Black and Brown students in school districts in Newark, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Chicago, were running amok because they were inherently bad. And if we could just weed out those "bad students" all of the other students would be able to learn. That is a myth. That is harmful and it's just not true. And so the war on drugs targeted Black and Brown families through arrest and criminalization, and the same thing was happening in schools. The thought was, if we just arrest young people who are causing harm or violence or just arrest young people period, or if we suspend them and expel them, it's going to be a deterrent for bad behavior, so-called bad behavior, and it'll make schools safe. And that's just not true. We completely ignored young people's mental and emotional health needs, completely ignored the systemic factors that were affecting them.


And we also, and when I say "we" I also include Black and Brown people who were in positions of authority, who believed that we had to be tough on young people. I'm sure people have read Locking Up Our Own, that same mentality showed up in school. And so what it meant is that young people who were in this very precious stage of adolescent brain development, whose brains have not fully been developed, were getting arrested at school, were getting beat up by school cops, were getting suspended and expelled or pushed out in various ways and the underlying causes were not being met. And I think the same thing is happening now. We're seeing a repeat of what we saw during the zero tolerance war on drugs era. We're living through a global pandemic that has dramatically changed everything that we know it. And you can only imagine how unsettling that has been for young people.


The rates of death by suicide for Black students and Black young people are extremely high right now, and there's not a lot of acknowledgement about the mental and emotional toll that the last few years has taken on them. But there is an emphasis coming back on, we've got to be tough on these kids. We got to arrest them, we got to get them out. And I think that that is one of the biggest mistakes that school communities and cities have ever made. And I think it's important to also name that coinciding with the war on drugs is this major disinvestment in low income communities, which also means major disinvestment in schools. And we're seeing the same thing happen. Young people fought to get police out of their schools in some cities across the country. And the money from those campaigns, the money from school police departments is not necessarily being reinvested in the tools and strategies that actually work to make schools safe, healing and supportive environments.


And so when you see disinvestment, you will also see violence and harm. And instead of recognizing that disinvestment, sometimes we continue to place blame on individuals, particularly people of color, Black, Brown and indigenous people, and not really meet their needs and then blame them for the harm and violence that's happening in communities.

Kee Tobar (19:02):

So what I've heard you talk about earlier, you've mentioned it a couple of times, but I think it's important to introduce the audience who may not be as familiar to this term pushout. So I think people have heard the school to prison pipeline, maybe not as eloquently as you put it in your description, but I don't know how many people have heard about pushout. So Dr. Monique Couvson, formerly known as Dr. Monique Morris, President and CEO of Grantmakers for Girls of Color and co-founder of Black Girl Freedom Fund, introduced the framework of pushout in her book Pushout, the Criminalization of Black Girls in School.


What is pushout and how is it different from the concept of a school to prison pipeline?

Ashley Sawyer (19:48):

Sure. So pushout I think is intended to be the broader definition of the school to prison pipeline. And Monique really is talking to us about all of the different traps for young people. If I tried to create a visual of a young person walking down a hallway and there's all of these trap doors, the school to prison pipeline, I think that framing focused very heavily on suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrest or arrest. And those are trap doors that young people can fall through. There are also these other trap doors that are very gender-specific. So for example, we saw this a lot in the early parts of the pandemic, Black, Brown girls were being asked to do a lot of adult caregiving. And this has always been a problem.


There's always been a lot of Black and Latine girls who were being told, "Listen, I need your help. Can you get another job after school?" Or "Can you drop your younger sibling off at school?" Or "You have an elderly grandparent who can't be left alone, so if I have to do a longer shift, I need you to stay with this elderly grandparent." Or whatever the case is, grocery shopping, all these adult caregiving responsibilities. And as a result of those, sometimes young people would be late for school, sometimes they would be at school exhausted and just put their head on the desk and not participate. And those young people were getting pushed out of school because if you're constantly being yelled at, chastised, publicly humiliated by your teacher for falling asleep or for being late or for being just not fully prepared because you're handling all of these responsibilities at home, you might just stop coming to school.


And so maybe you didn't get suspended or expelled, but that is pushout. The school did not create the conditions for this young person to feel supported, cared for and needed in the school environment. And so they just stopped coming. And so that's an example of pushout. And so the reason I believe that Monique uses the term pushout is to make sure that we're not forgetting these other trap doors that young people can fall into.


Another one is school-based sexual violence. If you're getting someone, adult or a peer, touching you inappropriately, saying things sexually to you that they shouldn't be saying and you don't feel comfortable going to school, you might just stop coming. And that's also pushout. Your school did not create a culture of consent. Your school did not create an environment where young people could be respected in their bodily autonomy. And so you stop showing up.


And also when I think about queer and trans young people, particularly in cities and states and school districts that are really attacking queer and trans people in this moment right now, if you're showing up at school as your full self in the gender presentation that you feel aligned with, and maybe you are trans and you're wearing acrylic nails and some people at your school think you shouldn't be and you are constantly harassed or bullied, you're going to stop showing up. Those are all examples of school pushout. And it's really important that we use the framing of pushout because as policy makers and advocates and organizers are trying to think about strategies to support young people, if we focus exclusively on suspensions, expulsions, and school-based arrests, we miss these opportunities to close the other trap doors and really just break up this whole system where young people are constantly ducking and dodging things that are trying to harm them.


And I know we're going to talk about school-based corporal punishment, but that's also an issue in 19 states in this country where it is still legal for schools to hit students. Those experiences of school-based violence absolutely have the ability to make a young person stop showing up at school or not feel like they can go to school and be safe and supported.

Kee Tobar (23:36):

So I really appreciate the fact that you kind of brought up how the intersectional identities of a young person may impact their experience with pushout or the school to prison pipeline. Could you elaborate on that more because I think it's really important for folks to get into that.

Ashley Sawyer (23:54):

So thank you so much for that question because I think the work has to be at the intersections, right? We have to be thinking about centering the young people who are most marginalized. So if you are a Black trans girl in a low income school district, maybe with a disability, you're experiencing multiple systems of harm at the same time.


And all of the solutions and problem solving that we're doing has to be focused on how do we serve and support the needs of that young person who is at the intersections of all of these different systems. And sometimes when we talk about pushout or the school to prison pipeline and when I say "we", I mean just like the proverbial "we" like people in the policy space particularly, we sometimes overlook the fact that gender sexuality and gender presentation also affect how a young person might experience school. And there is a lot of body policing happening in schools. There's also a lot of just straight-up violence happening to LGBTQ students in schools. And even in cities that people think of as liberal or progressive cities. Like I said, I used to work in New York and one of the young people that I worked with closely, I watched surveillance video of school cops at their school dragging them, physically dragging their body down concrete steps in front of the whole school building.


And this is a dark-skinned Black, queer, young person, and I just don't believe I would've ever seen that kind of violence if they didn't have those marginalized identities. And a lot of the punishment that I believe they were receiving, if I'm really honest, had a lot to do with the fact that they were a masc of center young person in a school that I believe had a lot of anti-Blackness. And whenever there was some normal childhood misbehavior, playing basketball when you're not supposed to be playing basketball, marijuana, whatever the case may be, they were the ones singled out. Meanwhile, the group of boys that they were hanging out with were not receiving the same or similar punishment for the exact same behaviors. And I do believe that that is because the adult believed that this young person was supposed to "act like a lady" or they had stereotypes in their mind about what a "girl child" should behave like.


And those beliefs make schools so violent, and I'm saying violent on purpose, for young people who don't fit into adult's understandings of gender. And then also their peers. Their peers are not being educated on supporting young people who are non-binary or gender-nonconforming. And their schools are not creating environments where young people can be supportive, right? Young people are learning and taking cues from the adults in their families and in their schools. And if their school says that behavior is okay then the students continue to bully, continue to harass because the adults aren't saying, "No, this will be a community of consent and care." And I think it's really important that we acknowledge, and I think you and I have talked about this before, but masc of center lesbians, masc of center young people or trans and non-binary young people experience a particular type of violence and harm in schools.


And that's at the hands often of adults who want to punish them for their gender presentation, their sexuality, or just who they are in general.

Kee Tobar (27:25):

I always say I'm so thankful that I had access to sport because sport allowed me access to a certain type of presentation without being punished for it that I would not have had otherwise because my behavior would have been stereotyped in a certain type of way. But because we give kind of some grace or some expansion or access to "masculinity" for girls who play sports, particularly basketball, then I wasn't punished as much for not necessarily fitting the stereotypical what was supposed to be the way that girls behaved. And I think if I didn't have sport, I think my experience in school, even as a bright child, would have been very different because of my masculine presentation in school, which is a shame.


I know we've talked about a lot of the problems and the violence that young people experience in school, and usually this just happens at the end of the podcast where I ask about solutions. But I think it's really important as it relates to this specific question before we go on to corporate punishment, to kind of discuss what you see as some of those solutions to address this issue.

Ashley Sawyer (28:45):

For sure. When I look to solutions, we always want to look at who's directly impacted, what are they saying and what are they demanding? So two resources that come to mind for anybody who's listening. One is The School Girls Deserve Report from Girls for Gender Equity. Full disclosure, I used to work there, I didn't work on the report. So really shout out to Khadija Hudson and Brittany Braithwaite and Kate McDonough and I'm sure other people like Dr. Connie Wun who worked on that report. They worked with a hundred New York City public school students and helped them identify solutions to the problems that they were experiencing in New York City public schools.


And one of the things that the young people wanted was culturally relevant curriculum. They wanted to see themselves represented in the curriculum, and that might feel tangential, but really what it was was they wanted to see themselves affirmed in school, and that would make school a more safe and healing environment for them. They wanted the complete removal of school cops and metal detectors, and they understood that the presence of police in their schools contributed to their schools feeling like prisons and contributed to them not feeling safe and supported in schools. There were other solutions. They definitely wanted to address school-based sexual harassment, and they wanted teachers and staff who were really thinking about race and gender and class and thinking about how to support young people, restorative practices. And I do want to come back to restorative practices in a moment.


So that's the Schoolgirls Reserve Report by GGE. Then also Latine young people, Latina girls in Philadelphia also put out a report some years ago. My colleague Noelia was a huge contributor to that report, and it's called We Are Not Invisible, and it's about the Latina mental health crisis in Philadelphia. And the report really unveils how many Latina girls in Philadelphia schools experience suicidal ideations, depression, and they feel ignored and they're not getting their needs met. And in that report, they list the solutions that they want to see happening. So before I think us adults "This is what the research says, this is what the policy says." And the research and policy are important, we also need to look at what young people have said and demanded.


And one of the things that the young people in the We Are Not Invisible report about Latina mental health said was that they wanted full school environments where they felt supported, where they had supportive adults that they could talk to and had access to those adults. And in my work at Advancement Project, we're really thinking about what will it look like to build abolitionist mental health demands in schools where young people can talk to someone who can support them if they have an individual mental or emotional health need and not have to worry about deportation, not have to worry about the family regulation system, not have to worry about if I share this thing will this person, a mandatory reporter, disrupt my family, tear apart my family, or gossip about me, which is a real thing in schools. And so those are some of the solutions that young people want.


Another solution that I often think about is real radical investment in schools and schools in a transformational way. I'm so saddened by what's happening in New York. The mayor of New York is taking away millions of dollars from New York City public schools under the guise of low enrollment, which is sort of a complicated thing, and I won't get too wonky there, but there are so many needs in schools that still exist, even if the numbers are dwindling as a result of the pandemic, moves, et cetera. And there's also a whole new group of young people, new migrant students who are coming to New York City public schools who will have additional needs. And instead, the mayor's saying, "Let me take money away from the New York City public School system, away from the Department of Education." When really they need more investments. And I'm talking about a school district that truly has a huge budget in comparison to districts across the country.


And the disinvestment makes it so difficult to get to the solutions. A lot of the solutions will require money, but also some of the solutions will require a radical and re-imagination of what school looks like, meaning a focus on healing, a focus on restorative practices.


So people say restorative practices, and they think, oh, you mean sit in a circle after a young person's done something bad and then we talk about it? No, that's not a restorative practice, and I really, really wish people would stop thinking about circle practice after harm is happening as the beginning and end of restorative practices. Restorative practices are usually implemented all day long, all throughout the school environment for everyone. It's connection, it's creating connection with young people, creating an environment where they have adults and peers that they trust. Creating an environment where young people have their basic needs met, and talking to young people, teaching them about things like consent, teaching them things about healthy relationships, creating an environment where particularly Black, Brown, indigenous students have the care and support that they need, and also are learning how to navigate conflict, learning how to navigate disagreements.


Restorative practices are woven throughout the academic environment. It's not something that you do after harm has happened. At that point, that's too late. That's just a conference that's not a restorative practice. And so restorative practices when done with fidelity can be a really powerful strategy and solution. But the solution I will often point to are getting cops out of schools. I've seen so many videos and pictures of Black girls being knocked unconscious by school cops in Florida. We saw the Spring Valley event in 2015. Tasered, beat up, harassed by school cops. We cannot have a safe healing academic environment when there's people who are in that academic environment who are waiting to catch young people and to do violence and harm to them. So that's a solution. Other solutions are major radical investments in people who are caregivers, people from community being invited with the right support to be present in school.


Young people need caring adults. They don't need a bunch, everybody doesn't need to have a master's in social work to be in a school. Sometimes it's okay to have just caring adults who are properly trained and prepared to be in the academic environment and just be visible and able to care for young people. So I could go on and on about solutions, but there are strategies that organizers and cities across the country are thinking about. There are organizers who are doing the work, many of them are connected to the National Campaign for Police Free Schools, and folks should go to and learn more about these organizing strategies and these solutions that are actually being built. People are actually putting their blood, sweat and tears to building these strategies, and I just feel so fortunate to even be proximate to those folks.

Kee Tobar (35:39):

So let's shift a little bit to talk about corporal punishment now. What is corporal punishment and how does it fit into the ideas we were just discussing around the school to prison pipeline and pushout?

Ashley Sawyer (35:51):

This is an area where I really do ask myself, how is that legal? So 19 states in the US still permit students to be hit, paddled, slapped, physically punished in schools. Not all of those states still use corporal punishment, but it's still legal in those states. Some of the states where it is most prevalent, most of those states are in the south. And I have the real privilege of getting to know some organizers from Mississippi, mostly through the Nollie Jenkins Family Center, who have been fighting for years, really years, to try to stop school-based corporal punishment and really to dismantle just the idea that it's okay to hit kids. Young people deserve to be safe in their minds and then also safe in their bodies.


If I disagree with something that my boss said, I would never slap them in the face, right? It would never be okay for my boss to slap me in the face if I said something that she didn't like. But we do that to children all the time. A young person talks back, a young person shows up late, a young person's not in dress code. And in some school districts, particularly I'm thinking about Mississippi, that young person can be paddled for any infraction, real or perceived. And it really makes my blood boil because what Miss Ellen, the former executive director of Nollie Jenkins Family Center says is Black children, their bodies are sanctuaries. And if we really start to understand Black bodies as sanctuary, you would understand how dare you put your hands on this child. But we permit it. It's state sanctioned violence that happens every single school day in many school districts across the country.


But I want to focus on Mississippi just because there are organizers there who are really trying to bring attention to this cause and we get to partner with them. And one of the statistics that we came across was that based on the most recent federal data of the school districts that allow school-based corporal punishment, Black girls are only about 16% of the girls in those districts, but they make up 73% of the girls who were getting hit in schools. So we see the disproportionality, right? You can be a small percentage of a school population, but if a girl is going to be hit or paddled in a school, it's more than likely going to be a Black girl. And when we were looking at the numbers, some of the school districts had 1200, 1500 incidents of corporal punishment in one school year.


So we know the average school year is about 180 days. So if you start to think about it, if a school has about 1200 or 1500 incidents of school-based paddling, hitting and less than 200 days in the school year, that means every single school day about someone in that school is getting hit by an administrator. And so, even if you're not the student being hit, the kind of environment that's created when other students, your peers are being paddled or hit, really what they need is love and care and support and investment in their school environments and not violence and harm.

Kee Tobar (39:00):

You brought up so many good points there that I wanted to just make sure, just to echo and emphasize. I think it's not coincidence that corporal punishment is occurring mostly in or on the books still mostly in the south, and how that is connected to the legacy of lack of bodily autonomy for Black folk in the south and also the legacy of slavery in the south.


I did have a question. I think that you've slightly alluded to it. So when you said the numbers for Black girls and the consistency with which they are experiencing violence in school, I wondered if there was numbers as it relates to just race generally not as sub aggregated. How often, and I don't want to make it a Black white dynamic, but how often are different racial identity groups, or do you have the data to show, how often they're being hit in comparison to each other?

Ashley Sawyer (40:00):

Yes. So again, I'm so grateful that we get to partner with groups like Nollie Jenkins Family Center. I can't stop shouting out the organizers because the lawyers, we talk about the work, the organizers are doing the work, but in the data that we were preparing for them, one of the things we found in Mississippi, as an example, of course, is that Black students are hit at higher rates than white students in Mississippi.


But one of the school districts, for example, the school district called Winona-Montgomery, Black students are four times more likely to be hit than white students. And another school district, the Madison County School district, Black students were hit at 6.5, so basically 6.5 times the rate of white students being hit. And almost invariably in Mississippi, and this is not to say that it doesn't happen in Texas, Alabama, other places, this is just where we have organizing partners, the school districts where there were Black students who were mixed school districts, Black students were being hit at higher rates. But it is also a practice being used everywhere. But 50% of all Black students receiving corporal punishment in the United States schools are being hit in Mississippi. So it's important to sort of focus there.

Kee Tobar (41:10):

Can you say that again?

Ashley Sawyer (41:11):

Yes. So 50% of all of the Black students who are going to be hit in a school in this country based on the most recent federal data, it's going to happen in Mississippi.


It makes sense to make an emphasis there. But then another sort of startling statistic, I think if that's what we're going for is 12,740 Black students were hit in Mississippi schools. And so 12,740. Each of those students is a body, a human being, and we hear that number, and I just want us to really remember that those are literally thousands of kids, and I want to stop using kids, but thousands of young people, thousands of children, babies, being hit and struck by the adults who are supposed to be responsible for their care and their development. And that is completely unfair, and it is wrong. We want to abolish the practice altogether, but we also want to name that the young people who are experiencing it are almost overwhelmingly and very much disproportionately Black students. And that's just unacceptable.

Kee Tobar (42:17):

How are other identity groups potentially affected differently by corporal punishment?

Ashley Sawyer (42:23):

So I don't have data around the rate of LGBTQ students being hit by staff, but I'm sure that it is high. I'm sure that it is disproportionate. We can see those trends in other areas and imagine that it extends to corporal punishment. But also I think it's important to recognize that in many parts of the south there has been an increase in Latine students and their representation in school districts. Excuse me. So I have no doubt that they're also experiencing corporal punishment at high rates. And then also when we look at places that have a large indigenous student population, we're also seeing really high rates of corporal punishment.

Kee Tobar (43:02):

So how does the policy, I want to explicitly kind of ask you this question of how the policy of corporal punishment impacts the educational and social outcomes for students?

Ashley Sawyer (43:13):

Absolutely. So a student who's hit in school is much less likely to graduate, right? Because school has now been deemed a place of violence and harm for them, and they don't feel safe there. And yes, corporal punishment is normalized and it should not be normalized, but it absolutely can affect how a young person learns. It's also very embarrassing to be hit at school. And so that can definitely affect how a young person shows up. And also just their ability to learn. I think some people believe like, okay, you didn't get suspended, so you didn't miss out on class instruction time. But how do you recover from that and just go sit back at your desk and pay attention? That's extremely disruptive to your equilibrium, your overall mental and physical wellness.


And so it is incredibly harmful for young people's overall academic achievement. Obviously there are people who are able to still graduate and do well, but I believe that it is completely unfair to expect students to show up well and learn while they are also being hit or under the threat of being hit while attending school.

Kee Tobar (44:22):

All around the country there's this, or at least a perception, of an uptick in violence that's happening at schools, uptick in shootings that's happening at schools, near schools. And the thought that these are happening sometimes perpetrated by young people themselves. What do you say to those adults who believe it to be reasonable to want more accountability as the way they see it and tougher punishment for young people who may be committing acts of violence at school, around school?

Ashley Sawyer (44:55):

This is such an interesting question to me because I don't want to be flip about it, but a lot of times when people say they want more accountability, they don't actually want accountability. They just really want a pound of flesh. They want more punishment, they want more suffering. They want to see an eye for an eye, for lack of a better phrase. And I want us to remember that when we're talking about schools, we're talking about young people. We're talking about people whose brands have not fully developed and who historically we believe deserve a particular level of care and support. And in theory, they should be wrapped in a cloak of innocence. And that perception is certainly not extended to Black students. And the conversation about accountability and harm has to really be focused on what is actually going to change harmful behavior, if there is harmful behavior happening.


What are the tools, practices, and policies that can actually get at the root causes of harmful behavior? And then also, how do we repair harm? How do we meet the needs of people who experience harm? And the current structures just do not do that. Our current structure of suspension, expulsion, arrest, getting beat up by a cop, getting tasered by a school cop, that is not creating accountability. That is not repairing harm for young people who experience harm. And so what I would want to push those folks who are talking about that towards, I would want to ask them why don't we think about what the root causes are and what really works? Those should be the two questions, I believe. What are the root causes to the harm and violence that's happening? And then what could really work to address those causes to address those issues?


And then also recognize that sometimes there is no hurt and there is no harm. So a young person dressing in the gender presentation that they're aligned with, there's no harm there, and that's not violence. And I want to be very clear about that. And sometimes we cast a broad net. A young person smoking a little weed on the corner, it maybe not your favorite thing to see, but I want to be very mindful that when we criminalize young people for that, we're actually doing way more harm than good. I just don't think that that's fair. And if we want to feel safe and we want to create safety in schools and in communities, that will require a major, major reinvestment or investment for the first time ever, in young people, their schools, their families, their communities. Housing is a huge, huge issue. You know this. If you are houseless or your family's bouncing from one place to the next, it is very difficult to just be "good in school."


And so if we don't address those root causes and we don't really also talk to young people about violence and harm that they're seeing in their neighborhoods. How do I make sense of the violence or harm that I saw in my community or a loved one or a friend that got shot and not hold anger and violence or anger and pain in me? And that manifests in other ways. And so we as adults sometimes place so much blame on young people when we see things in the news that startle us and we're not asking ourselves, who is loving on these children, who is really surrounding them with the kind of love and care that they need so that they can show up as their best selves and that they can be less likely to engage in violence and harm? Who is mentoring them? Who's caring for them? And if the response is always punishment, punishment, punishment, we're actually going to continue to be in a vicious cycle.


As an example, we are seeing an increase in budgets for school cops across the country, even in the wake of the 2020 uprisings, even in the wake of organizers saying, enough is enough. And I use New York City as an example, where they have the largest school police force in the country. It is literally the size of an army. They have a half a billion dollar budget to police students, and we still see harm and violence. So clearly police presence is not a deterrent, and clearly it is not an effective tool or strategy. You can change their uniform, put them in a NYPD blue uniform, or put them in khakis, and they're still causing harm to young people.


All of us abolitionists, all of us folks who are advocating for police free schools we actually really want safety. Sometimes it feels like we want safety more than the punishment folks, and we want safety for everybody, including the young people who are on the margins, including the young people who feel afraid, the young people who feel lonely and lost, or the young people who are just struggling and just growing up and making the same normal mistakes that all of us made. We want everyone to feel safe, and we know that that's not possible without really meeting the needs that young people have when they show up at school and their needs in their community.

Kee Tobar (49:36):

This has been amazing. Thank you for joining us.

Ashley Sawyer (49:40):

Thank you. I'm so happy I got to do this.

Kee Tobar (49:51):

That was my interview with Ashley Sawyer. Our conversation comes at a really opportune moment as cities and states across the country suffer from truly devastating rates of gun violence, and many are reviving decades old calls to get tough on crime.


I'm grateful to Ashley for really looking at the systems that not only harm young people in schools, but also teach them how to be violent. Instead of perpetuating the cycle of violence, harm, and poverty what if we actually followed Ms. Ellen Reddy's words and treated Black and Brown children's bodies as sanctuaries? If you want to ask questions about the show or let us know what you think, please email us at Also, while Community Legal Services of Philadelphia offers free legal assistance on a range of civil legal issues, we are not a criminal defense firm. So if you live in Philadelphia and are looking for noncriminal legal help, please visit us at C-L-S-P-H-I-L-A dot O-R-G. We cannot respond to questions about legal issues via email.


Season two of How is That Legal? is produced by Rowhome Productions. Jake Nussbaum is our producer and editor. Executive producers are Alex Lewis and John Meyers. Music provided by Blue Dot Sessions. Special thanks to Caitlin Nagel, [inaudible 00:51:09]. I'm your host, Kee Tobar.