How a School System Led Me to Advocate for Civil Rights

By Joy Miller, co-founder of the Education and Juvenile Justice Advocacy Network

(credit: aclupa)

(credit: aclupa)

I thought that having your civil rights violated in schools was something that you only heard about in the days of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Never in my wildest dreams could I have ever imagined that I would face the day when my child would be criminalized and have his rights violated by his school. I always thought of school as a place where caring people cultivate relationships with the youth and assist in enhancing their academic and emotional development. My son’s experience in the school district where we will live has been eye opening to say the least.

When my son was in 6th grade, he was arrested for showing another student a miniature Swiss army knife that he found on school grounds. Before this incident, my son was a safety officer and had just made honor roll a month before being handcuffed and hauled off the school grounds into a police car. Despite having a positive performance record, no considerations were taken into account by school district officials when levying heavy consequences.

I learned the hard way that when it comes down to the logistics of handling school discipline matters that it’s about knowing your rights, documentation, and legalities. I was shocked when I received a copy of my son’s written statement, which contradicted what school officials told me initially when they notified me about the incident. My son’s statement read that he wanted to bring a knife to school for protection, which couldn’t have been further from the truth! I asked my son what made him write such a thing, when he had found it on the school grounds and had shown it to a friend in the bathroom. He informed me that the first statement that he wrote said that he found the knife outside the school and had only shown it to a friend. However, he said that the statement was thrown in the trash by the assistant principal. She had instructed him to write it over and said that he hadn’t written the statement truthfully as it happened. My son told me that he had explained to her that he didn’t know what else to write, because he had written what happened the first time, which was the truth. He then informed me that he was told by the assistant principal that it was okay if he wanted to write that he really brought the knife to school for protection and that he wouldn’t be in trouble. So he figured that he would write exactly as she said, since he was told that he wouldn’t be in trouble, or so he thought.

In my eyes, I call this abuse of authority, subliminal persuasion, and pressure. I knew that the statement I was reading was untrue, because I was personally informed by the school staff that my son located the miniature Swiss army knife on the school premises, and there was never any mention of him having it for protection. What was I to do at that point? Too much time had passed, the statement was already written, and the consequences had already been determined. I was outraged that my son had been persuaded into writing other than what had actually occurred and made to incriminate himself to look like he had intentions to hurt someone with a weapon. By this time the damage was already done.

Seeing how the school district blindsided me with their questionable tactics, how they ignored my son’s long-standing efforts to maintain a positive record and labeled him a criminal, has been both challenging and motivating. The lesson learned in dealing with our school district has given me a new life journey and has taken me in a direction that has encouraged me to focus on educating and advocating for the civil rights of parents and youth. The challenges I faced during my personal experience has empowered me to follow in the footsteps of the many people that have stood for the rights of others. I want to ensure that other parents and youth are educated about their rights when it comes to the education and juvenile justice system, so that they don’t end up blindsided like I once was. The journey of educating parents and youth about their civil rights was a mission that I took on knowing that I would have a long obstacle filled road ahead.

I felt compelled to focus my first call of action on creating a parent advocacy support network that provides resources and services to parents and youth. As co-founder of the Education and Juvenile Justice Advocacy Network, our goal is to equip parents with the education and tools needed to effectively address school matters using an informed approach. The idea to create an advocacy network for parents was not only inspired by my personal story, but also by the many similar school district stories that other parents have shared as well.

Since dealing with my personal school district matters and being empowered to advocate for the rights of other parents and youth, I have a deeper understanding for those before me who fought for the liberties of others. The civil rights leaders and social reform pioneers are the people who paved the way for organizations like the Education and Juvenile Justice Advocacy Network to exist. So as I walk in the purpose of those who fought for our civil rights, I honor humanitarians and social justice reformers past and present who dedicate their lives to the crusade.

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

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Joy Miller is the co-founder of the Education and Juvenile Justice Advocacy Network and a volunteer for the ACLU of Pennsylvania.