Open Letter in defense of “March for our Lives” student walkouts

Dear Pennsylvania school administrators, solicitors, board members, and educators,

As you are already aware, students nationwide have decided to respond to the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, by engaging in organized demonstrations. Their hope is to promote awareness of gun violence, which has devastated schools and communities across the country, and spark meaningful reform to address this issue. We at the ACLU of Pennsylvania ask that you support them in this endeavor, and refrain from disciplining any students who engage in a peaceful walkout.

Students striving to change their communities and their country through non-violent means should be held up as models of civic engagement, regardless of the issue or the politics involved. School administrators and educators can either punish these civically minded students for violating school rules or seize this opportunity to nurture their efforts to participate in civic life and to effect positive change around them.

If you choose to punish them, you should be aware that, when engaging in political speech, students enjoy constitutional protections both in and out of school.

Outside of school, as you know, students enjoy the same rights to protest as others. During school hours, students have protection for political speech under our state and federal constitutions. Practically, this means:

  • Students cannot be punished for expressing their beliefs unless it substantially and materially disrupts school functioning or the substance is lewd or profane.
  • Students cannot be disciplined for wearing clothes or accessories that express political or issue-oriented viewpoints just because some may disagree with that view.

As students plan walkouts to press for changes in policy, please bear firmly in mind:

  • It is unconstitutional to discipline students more harshly for politically motivated conduct than for similar, non-political behavior.
  • The ACLU of Pennsylvania may intervene if a student who leaves school as an act of political protest faces more severe punishmentthan a classmate would for skipping class for some other reason.

At the ACLU of Pennsylvania, we are continually impressed and inspired by the commonwealth’s engaged young people who stand up for their own rights and the rights of others. Whether or not you agree with their cause, we hope you will join us in encouraging students to use their growing voices to participate in our democracy, rather than becoming another hurdle they have to overcome in their fight to be heard.


Reggie Shuford
Executive Director

Witold Walczak
Legal Director

When police arrest children

By Harold Jordan, Senior Policy Advocate, ACLU of Pennsylvania

Photo from Steven Lane of The Associated Press.

One of the issues that the ACLU has been working on diligently, for years, has been student and youth rights. This week, NBC News aired a series of reports on police in schools.

As a part of the reporting project, many local affiliates are running companion investigatory pieces. Here in Philadelphia, NBC 10 aired a two-segment series on school discipline beginning last night with “Policing Our Schools: Uneven Rates of Discipline in our Region.” It includes an interview with yours truly. The second segment is called “Changing the Narrative on School Discipline.”

The lead-off segment for the national report ran on Sunday, on NBC News with Lester Holt. A longer piece ran on the Today show. The stories feature an ACLU of Missouri client, a 7-year old kid who was handcuffed.

Here is a quick guide to some of the other reports that have aired so far.

  • From NBC News: “Kids in Cuffs: Why Handcuff a Student With a Disability”
  • From NBC Boston: “Off-the-Books Suspensions May Enable Some Schools to Skirt State Law.”
  • From NBC NYC: “Policing the Schools: Minority Students More Likely to Be Suspended or Arrested.”
  • From NBC Bay Area, a six-part series on police in schools: “Arrested at School”


(Criminal justice news that could use a second look.)

Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration enforcement ramps up 287(g), a program that allows local law enforcement to serve as federal immigration agents. Photo from The Atlantic.

  • From The Atlantic: “Donald Trump’s Plan to Outsource Immigration Enforcement to Local Cops”

“Thirty-eight law enforcement agencies are currently collaborating with ICE, according to the government’s latest figures. But a report released by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in December found that the overwhelming majority of the 2,556 counties surveyed didn’t need formal programs: They were already offering assistance to ICE. An early example is the Milwaukee Sheriff’s Department, led by Trump surrogate David Clarke, which teamed up with ICE for a 2-day raid in Wisconsin that ended on the same day that the president signed his executive order enlisting help from local law enforcement. The sheriff’s department has not formally entered agreements to join the 287(g) program. Still, local law enforcement played an active role in arresting 16 undocumented immigrants, all of whom authorities said had previous criminal convictions ranging from assault to drug possession.”

“Even FBI Director James Comey recognized that a lack of data is driving police and citizens further apart. It seems like an issue that should have been addressed ages ago. In fact, it was. In 2000, Congress passed the Death in Custody Reporting Act (DCRA), which required police departments to track and report to the U.S. Attorney General the number of civilians who died in police custody or during arrest. Garnering bipartisan support, the law was heralded as a major step forward in the measurement and improvement of police use of force. The result? It took 15 years for the federal government to issue any kind of report on the DCRA’s data. When it did, it showed poor data coverage and quality. Fewer than half of ‘arrest related deaths’ were recorded, and there were major quality issues due to ‘lack of standardized modes for data collection, definitions, scope, participation, and the availability of resources.’”

  • From The Urban Institute: “How Do People in High-Crime, Low-Income Communities View the Police?”

“Residents of these high-crime, heavily disadvantaged communities witness and experience intensive police presence, high rates of incarceration and community supervision, and concentrated violence and question the intent, effectiveness, and equity of the criminal justice system. Indeed, police may carry out aggressive strategies that target quality-of-life infractions and drug-, gun-, and gang-related violence in ways that undermine public confidence. Perhaps not surprisingly, areas with high levels of mistrust tend to be those that are heavily policed, where police use tactics such as pretextual stops that damage their relationship with the people they are charged to protect. The results can be far-reaching: a distrust of the criminal justice system, an unwillingness to cooperate with the police, and a cynical view of the law that can perpetuate crime and victimization.”

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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.