ZFF is proud to support a partnership between Bay Area Legal Aid (BayLegal) and RYSE to interrupt the school to prison pipeline in West Contra Costa County. The school to prison pipeline is a reference to school-based disciplinary policies and practices that have the effect of criminalizing youth. The pipeline disproportionately affects black and brown students who are significantly more likely than their white counterparts to be suspended from school. Students who are suspended are more likely to fall behind in school, as much as twice as likely to drop out, and three times as likely to become involved in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.

BayLegal and RYSE are two of the region’s leading youth-serving organizations. BayLegal provides free civil legal assistance for clients in seven Bay Area counties. Its Youth Justice Program provides youth and young adults with holistic supports, services, and civil legal representation in the following practice areas: child welfare, juvenile justice, health and mental health, education, disabilities, housing and homelessness. Based in Richmond, RYSE creates safe spaces grounded in social justice for young people to love, learn, educate, heal, and transform lives and communities. RYSE’s programs, which focus on education and justice, community health, youth organizing, and media, arts and culture, are anchored in the belief that young people have the lived knowledge and expertise to identify, prioritize, and direct the activities and services necessary to thrive.

BayLegal and RYSE are working closely with the West Contra Costa County Unified School District (WCCUSD) and other community partners to increase students’ emotional and physical safety in WCCUSD schools by replacing punitive discipline policies with positive interventions that support students in class instead of suspending, citing and arresting them. At the invitation of WCCUSD, staff from BayLegal and RYSE joined the district’s school climate workgroup whose efforts culminated in the drafting of a comprehensive positive School Climate Resolution that the WCCUSD school board unanimously approved in fall 2017. The resolution is grounded in research findings that over-reliance on school resource officers (SRO’s) as school-based disciplinarians is strongly correlated with punitive measures that lead to racially disparate student pushout, that relationship building is a key protective factor in school safety, and that investments in trauma-informed and restorative supports can be far more effective at preventing conflict and subsequent risks to physical safety.

Additionally, BayLegal and RYSE successfully advocated for the hiring of a district-wide school climate director and assisted WCCUSD in developing its first behavior matrix, which is aligned with the district’s overall plan for a Multi-Tiered System of Supports (MTSS) and provides that school site administrators and teachers must conduct specified behavioral interventions before considering suspension or law enforcement involvement.

BayLegal, as a member of the district’s school climate workgroup, helped inform the new contracts between WCCUSD and the five West County police departments, as well as recommendations to increase funding for teacher training in trauma-informed and restorative practices. Meanwhile, RYSE engaged educators from WCCUSD in listening sessions to share youth and adult experiences and voices around trauma, violence, coping, and healing. These ongoing “radical inquiry” sessions facilitate connection, proximity and empathy in attempts to cultivate shared understanding of the localized context of broader social conditions and collective commitment towards building and sustaining school climates that are welcoming and affirming for all.

Despite this tremendous progress, continued education and advocacy is critical to ensure effective implementation of the new policies; resist misguided reactions to recent school shootings around the country; and inform budget decisions that reflect a shift from punitive approaches to culturally relevant, evidence-based interventions that are informed by the experiences of local youth and community members.