Black parents have an antidote for a prison pipeline that is directly linked to in-school policing. Why haven’t we followed their lead?

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Michael La'Fitte II decided something had to be done to stop the violence at his daughter's school in Shreveport, Louisiana after 23 students were arrested for fighting in a three-day span and she expressed a fear of going there. After discovering those fears were shared by her peers, he spearheaded a meeting with the other parents seeking a solution. By the end of that meeting, they decided the best way to ensure their children were safe was as "Dads on Duty," rotating shifts in halls of Southwood High. Since their inaugural effort on September 20, 2021, more than 40 volunteers have joined the cause. The violence didn't just decrease—it stopped.

The incident reflects a national increase in behavioral issues in schools. In October alone, schools in Columbus, Ohio, Waldorf, Maryland, and Pittsburgh were in the news for fighting—the latter of which resulted in a temporary shift to virtual instruction. Countless minor issues are simply documented, as experts suggest that these incidents are evidence students are struggling to adjust to expectations after pandemic-related closures. 

The efforts at Southwood High are part of a larger trend of intervention at schools that addresses both violence and the national inclination to funnel students into the criminal justice system—a pattern that is often referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline and disproportionately affects youth of color. The methods employed by Dads on Duty aren't new; similar parent-led initiatives have been documented over several decades. The viability of school resource officers (SROs), which critics say is just policing in schools, is at the center of this conversation.

Students wearing face mask walking in high school's hallway
Credit: Getty Images

Kristin Henning, Blume Professor of Law and Director of the Juvenile Justice Clinic and Initiative at Georgetown Law, celebrates Dads on Duty as a creative alternative to reliance on police in schools and believes they exacerbate the issue. Unlike the SROs, whose strategies focus on arrests, La'Fitte and his crew deterred violence with their presence. Both Henning's overall career and her recent work, The Rage of Innocence: How America Criminalizes Black Youth, explore how racism and policing show up in all areas of life for Black kids, especially in school. The "presence as prevention" model most recently embodied by Dads on Duty, opens a dialogue about the feasibility of community-based initiatives as long-term alternatives to SROs.

Black youth are four times more likely to be detained or committed in juvenile facilities than their white peers. Advocates attribute this to excessive police presence in schools, minimal mental and social support resources, and an over-reliance on punitive measures like suspensions, expulsions, and arrests. Schools with SROs had arrest rates three and a half times higher than those without them—a figure which rose to as much as eight times higher based on location—often for insignificant offenses like tardiness, cursing, and fake burping. SROs are disproportionately placed in majority Black and Latinx schools, which experts say leaves Black students more likely to be charged, arrested, and referred to juvenile courts by them. The principal of Southwood High told the Washington Post 'the dads' are a welcome alternative to the heavy police presence that made many students uncomfortable.

"America has a long history of failing to recognize Black children as children," says Henning. She says the practice of robbing Black youth of childhood began during enslavement and has continued into 2021. Though adolescence is almost universally considered a time to take risks, test boundaries, and challenge authority, often only white children experience the freedoms of these "rites of passage." Children of color, on the other hand, are surveilled and experience lifelong punishment for things that likely would have been ignored or resulted in a warning had they been white. This dangerous pattern has been sustained and normalized, informing the continued criminalization kids face in their communities and in school. "That implicit racial bias plays out in schools, in the community, when all of us civilians, teachers—everybody—is terrified of Black children," says Henning. 

Members of the Counselors Not Cops team in a meeting
Credit: Courtesy of Counselors Not Cops

Dexter Leggin is Parent Liaison at Genevieve Melody Stem Elementary School and co-chair of the Elementary Justice Campaign, an effort through Community Organizing and Family Issues (COFI), an organization that's been training Chicago parents in leadership and advocacy since 1995. Leggin, a single father, foster parent and restorative justice practitioner, says there's no doubt his involvement with COFI, an organization that's been training Chicago parents in leadership and advocacy since 1995, made him a better father.

EJC aims to "break the cycle of criminalization of low-income youth of color by eliminating unnecessarily punitive discipline policies and practices in Chicago's public elementary schools," says Leggin. He says he's not anti-police but in neighborhoods where children see police on every corner, they shouldn't be the first faces students see at school, as well. 

Though there's limited empirical research on the success of parent-led programs, Leggin and proponents speak to their impact. He works to limit the interactions students have with punitive systems during the school day. "My job is to try to bring it down and try to see what's wrong and see if I can help. Sometimes I can't. But nine out of ten times I can," says Leggin. Restorative justice practices support students through a process of taking responsibility for their actions through reflection—often in collaboration with teachers and other students. In contrast, suspensions cost students tens of millions of instruction days each year. The Counseling Not Criminalization in Schools Act stops the use of federal funds for police maintenance or growth in school and invests in the age-appropriate mental and social services for youth to gradually end the school-to-prison pipeline.

Leggin, who was heavily involved in the National Week of Action Against School Pushout: Community Not Cops campaign via EJC has found, for many students, once they have the opportunity to express themselves and reflect, no future discipline is needed. 

Reflection is the last step in a process that includes emphasizing responsibility for offenders, supporting those who are affected and seeking collaborative solutions and prevention. In schools, this might also look like visits to a peace center, a room where students can express themselves and process their actions in peace circles

Across the country, organizations like MASK (Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings), Reclaim the Block, and Campaign Zero offer examples of community-led initiatives that seek public safety and crime reduction through relationship building, accountability, and community investment. Parent-led initiatives bring this strategy into the school and invest in youth. Author and law professor Kristin Henning says the results of Dads on Duty speak for themselves, but the sustainability of these models depends on investment from the larger society. "We need resources, funding for dads. The school system needs to be funding that as an alternative, and the school system should take responsibility for these kinds of initiatives," says Henning.

Increasingly, school districts around the country are ending in-school police programs, proving that they are open to different options. Dads on Duty is the latest in a long tradition of Black parents working to provide alternatives to police that support their children's wellbeing, rather than jeopardizing it. Leader Michael La'Fitte II would like to expand their program and people are certainly interested.

So many Black parents, like La'Fitte, have planted the seeds by mobilizing alternatives to policing in schools. Perhaps, they'll finally see the fruits of their efforts.