In the first in a series of spotlights on each of our grantee partners across the state, PYJI spoke with Tere Flores, director of organizing for Sacramento Area Congregations Together (Sacramento ACT), a multi-racial, multi-faith organization based in Sacramento County, about an important victory for the safety of Sacramento City Unified School District students.
Tell us about your role at Sacramento ACT, and how the organization is involved with the Positive Youth Justice Initiative.
I work with the other organizers at Sacramento ACT around the issues we focus on, including education, immigration, housing, healthcare and violence prevention. I get to see the intersection of the issues we work on.
Sacramento ACT is the lead organization for PYJI in Sacramento. Part of our role is to help convene other organizations working around juvenile justice issues in the region, especially in Sacramento County.
Can you describe the community you live in and work with?
Through PYJI, we work with youth in communities most impacted by violence and inequity. They are youth with a lot of potential, but also in neighborhoods where there is deep inequity in terms of the resources that young people, and the schools they attend, have access to. A number of the youth in the neighborhoods that we work with have been impacted by juvenile justice system. Either they have been in juvenile hall, or have siblings or parents that have been incarcerated.
How do you define school safety?
We conducted a number of listening sessions with youth and parents about what school safety means to them. Youth and parents believe that preventing potentially violent or dangerous situations from escalating by providing access to resources like mental health resources creates a safer environment.
We also heard that restorative practices can have a positive impact on school safety. Convening peer courts or creating another system for discipline that isn’t punitive but is focused on understanding the impact of your choices, and finding a solution that brings some relief for the person that was impacted but also for the person who caused it, creates a safer school environment.
Tell us about any recent "wins" you and your organization have been a part of.
We heard from our listening sessions that one of the issues impacting young people the most was the presence of school resource officers (SROs) on campus. They reported many incidents where SROs intimidated or harassed students.
Last year, the Sacramento City Unified School District was considering renewing the $3 million, two-year contract they have had with the Sacramento Police Department for years to keep SROs on campus. Sacramento ACT, along with our partners, went and spoke against the contract at a school board meeting and raised a number of questions.
In addition to questioning whether we needed SROs on campus in the first place, we also challenged the contract itself. For example, in the eight years since the City of Sacramento has had this contract, there has been no requirement for data collection. There are no demographics on the youth that the SROs interact with or what caused the interactions.
As a result of our advocacy, the Board decided to hold off on voting to renew the contract for 2020 until they could get more clarity. Since the district didn’t have a process in place to hear from the community, we held forums to hear from young people and understand what students, parents and community members wanted from this process and to get their help in defining school safety.
After hosting a series of forums that included school Board members, the Board voted in August 2019 on a school safety plan that included a contract for three off campus SROs. We also got the board to commit to a community hiring panel for both the Director of School Safety, who is in charge of implementing the school safety plan, and for the SROs.
While we advocated for the removal of all police presence from campuses, we consider keeping them off campus and reducing the total number of officers from eight to three a huge success and an important step in the process to reduce police presence on school campuses.
What still remains to be done to ensure that young people in Sacramento feel safe and supported on campus?
The immediate next step is ensuring that there is youth presence on the community hiring panel so that the youth have a direct say in both the SROs that get selected and for the selection of the Director of School Safety.
Are there any lessons from this work you might share with organizers in other parts of the state interested in engaging on this issue?
Collaboration is key, Sacramento ACT certainly did not accomplish this work on our own. We worked closely on this with Brown Issues, Hmong Innovating Politics and the Black Parallel School Board. We were really intentional about creating a diverse coalition to ensure that those diverse voices were represented. It’s not just about Black students or brown students or AAPI students; this is about all of our students.
What are the elements that you think helped you be successful?
Staying consistent in our messaging and keeping the voices of students at the center has been critical for this work. Initially, there were folks in our collaborative that felt that schools should have SROs but that they should be required to collect data, that there should be guidelines for them to adhere to in their work. But the youth pushed back and said no, we don’t want SROs on campus. Continuing to center the students helped us move people from what we thought we wanted or needed to the true priorities of the community.