Op-ed: An open letter to the San Jose Unified School District
The San Jose Unified School District is pictured in this file photo.

Dear middle school principals, high school principals and the superintendent of the San Jose Unified School District:

We are writing to you on behalf of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley, the W. Haywood Burns Institute and the San Jose Unified Equity Coalition to invite you to build upon the courageous vote recently taken by the SJUSD school board to remove campus police officers.

We are concerned that instead of supporting this historic step toward dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, you are strategizing to use your union to push for reinstating school police. Instead, we ask that you use this transformative moment to invest in meaningful change, including restorative justice, mental health counseling and ethnic studies curriculum, in light of these facts:

1) School police are part of a reactive, punitive system that creates a cycle of unmet needs, disruptive behavior and punishment that ends with students being pushed out of school. SJUSD has a history of disproportionately punishing Black, Latinx and Indigenous students. Children that live in heavily policed neighborhoods, live in fear of deportation or have lost a loved one to police violence have had to navigate a hostile school environment created by police on campus.

As administrators, it’s imperative that you acknowledge how this creates intersectional, complex traumas that fuel the school-to-prison pipeline.

2) Twenty-five percent of SJPD officers have had a complaint filed against them, and SJPD is the deadliest police force in the Bay Area. Ohlone Middle, Castillero Middle, Willow Glen Middle, Willow Glen High and Pioneer High have been staffed with seven police officers with officer-involved shootings on their record, including a fatal incident. Multiple SJPD officers belonged to a racist, xenophobic, islamaphobic and misogynistic Facebook group, and their union protected the officers involved.

Regardless of the positive relationships that may exist between administrators and individual campus police officers, it’s crucial to recognize the culture of violence, silence and complicity in SJPD that our marginalized students pay for just by coming to school.

3) Restorative justice practices, mental health counseling and ethnic studies are proactive, tangible investments that will better serve all students. They provide teachers and administrators with tools that meet student needs and create a positive school climate. All students will leave our schools more empathetic, empowered community members with access to these services.

As school leaders entrusted with the well-being of students, please use your power and privilege to advocate for the robust implementation of these services on each of your campuses.

Most importantly, consider the perspective of students most impacted by police on campus. A student who attended Gunderson and Leland High shared this experience:

“I’m a Mexican American and I’ve been racially profiled by the police at my school, which would lead to multiple bag and person searches… The disrespect and racism I felt is not ok and I know people from schools like Broadway High and San Jose High who also have had experiences like mine. One of my friends is African American and has been searched and profiled, as far as he can tell me, four to five times each year… Every time they search us, they find nothing and send us back to our classes feeling violated and disrespected… I hope you take our hardships and struggle to heart and realize why schools are not a prison and shouldn’t be guarded by SJPD officers.”

San Jose is known as a progressive city, brimming with potential and possibility. Each of you has a role to play in deciding whether our youth are given the opportunity to live up to this promise, or if the school-to-prison pipeline will continue. Above all, as the superintendent and school administrators in SJUSD, we ask you to take action to prioritize restorative justice practices, mental health counseling and ethnic studies curriculum to better serve our students. Be on the right side of history.

Julia Cuevas is a San Jose native, a parent in SJUSD and a member of the San Jose Unified Equity Coalition. She is a community organizer who has spent 10 years working with juvenile justice system-impacted youth and families in efforts to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline.

Joanna Lowry is a member of the social justice and well-being team with the W. Haywood Burns Institute. She supports jurisdictions across the country in advancing racial and ethnic equity in local justice systems.

Tamara Schane is an attorney with Legal Advocates for Children and Youth, which is part of the Law Foundation of Silicon Valley.

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