Donate today to triple your impact!

Justice in America: Episode 28: School to Prison Pipeline

Josie Duffy Rice and her co-host, Derecka Purnell, talk to Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project, about the school to prison pipeline.

Getty Images

What is the school to prison pipeline, and how is it affecting children across America? On this episode of Justice in America, Josie and her co-host, Derecka Purnell, talk to Judith Browne Dianis, the executive director of the Advancement Project. They’ll discuss the forms that the school to prison pipeline takes, and the effects it has on poor, black, and brown kids in particular.

Judith Browne Dianis’ Book recommendation: Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Y. Davis 

Additional Resources copy and links:

These resources from the Advancement Project

This 2013 article from Teaching Tolerance

This piece from The Appeal Newsletter by Vaidya Gullapalli

This episode of The Appeal Podcast with Danny Murillo

Other resources mentioned by Judith Browne Dianis 

Power U Center, Florida

Padres & Jóvenes Unidos, Denver

Philly Student Union, Philadelphia

Black Organizing Project, Oakland

Advancement Project’s Police Free Schools campaign with the Alliance for Educational Justice.

Justice in America is available on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Stitcher, GooglePlay Music, Spotify, and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Facebook and Twitter.

Our email is



[Begin Clip]

Judith Browne Dianis: The system, as in the school systems not just the criminal justice system, sets up a system for them to fail, sets up a system of control of them and their bodies and their behavior, a system that is unforgiving, a system that shows no grace for them, a system that ignores the fact that they are teenagers or even younger than that. Let’s talk about the 6 year old who was arrested last year in Florida, and that system says that we expect that we are going to control you because you can’t control yourselves.

[End Clip]

Josie: Hi everyone, I’m Josie Duffy Rice.

Derecka: And I’m Derecka Purnell.

Josie: This is Justice in America.  Each show we discuss a topic in the American criminal justice system and we try to explain what it is and how it works. Thank you everyone for joining us today.

Derecka: You can find us on Twitter at @Justice_Podcast, we’re also on Facebook at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts, we’d love to hear from you.

Josie: So I’m so excited that we have Derecka here today. This is our first episode together. I just think she’s brilliant and someone I’ve always wanted to work with more in this space. Although we didn’t overlap in law school, we have made up for it afterwards and I was super excited that she agreed to come on and join us so thank you so much Derecka for being here.

Derecka: Of course. Thank you for having me.

Josie: To learn more about Derecka including that she knows a lot of Beyonce choreography you should listen to her 10 question bonus which you can find anywhere that you listen to podcasts. So Check it out. 

Derecka: We opened this show with a clip from our guest, Judith Browne Dianis, aka my former boss, aka Josie’s former boss.

Josie: True.

Derecka: Judith is the Executive Director of Advancement Project, a national social justice project based in Washington, D.C.

Josie: Today we’re talking about the school to prison pipeline. But first, we’re going to talk about our word of the day, which is rehabilitation. The way that rehabilitation is defined is “the action of restoring someone to health or normal life through training and therapy after imprisonment, addiction, or illness.” And the way it’s really used is to kind of imply that someone is fixed, right? If someone’s rehabilitated, they no longer have the issues that got them in the situation that they may have been in to begin with, whether that’s addiction or incarceration or illness. And I feel like it’s used just willy nilly, people use the term rehabilitation without really knowing what that looks like.

Josie: Of course, and I mean, if you’re leaving imprisonment, incarceration, and you’re given, you know, a $50 bus ticket and $200 to kind of go back to your normal life, it completely ignores the fact that normal life for lots of people who are in jail and who are in prison means returning to poverty.

Josie: Right.

Derecka: Returning to surveillance, returning to police, returning to food deserts, they’re returning to what, unfortunately, it’s considered all too normal. And there’s no way, you have to fix society and not just assume that prisons can be the place where a person can be fixed and returned to something that should not be normal in the first place. 

Josie: Yeah, I think that’s actually such a good point because it does seem like the entire onus of rehabilitation is on the person and you hear these people talk about prisons as places where people are rehabilitated, which, if someone is quote-unquote “rehabilitated” in prison, it’s no thanks to the prison. This is not a place where people are given the opportunity to become their most healthy selves and the expectation that someone comes out of prison and it’s fixed. And as if that’s sort of like just a state, you’re just fixed. We all know what it’s like to have issues of any sort. It’s not like you’re either zero or 100. People are complicated. They’re kind of like fluctuating, they’re changing all the time. And this idea that rehabilitation is a state.

Derecka: No, it makes complete sense. I think it probably has origins in the history of the prison systems. So Quakers offered prisons as a more humane way to treat people who committed an offense against the state or committed offense against their neighbor and so instead of cutting someone’s hand off or just killing them, they put forth an alternative and said, ‘Look, we can have an institution where someone can go and think about the harm they’ve done with the hopes of making them a better person.’ Still completely ignoring the fact why people are like stealing in the first place. So it has those roots. And you know, they were the first people to introduce that concept, they also were among the first prison abolitionists. But no one’s following the Quakers lead now. 

Josie: Right. Three hundred years later, we’ve kind of given up on the Quakers. It’s interesting too, just to your point about the kind of circumstances of someone’s life, a lot of times what quote-unquote “rehabilitates” people is something really basic like time, right? People change from being the age of 18 to the age of 38 and the idea that that change can be kind of legislatively mandated and then I would say the other thing about rehabilitation is just that, to me it reminds me of so many other words we use in criminal justice where we use it with authority and with confidence, but we couldn’t really describe what it means.

Derecka: Like justice. 

Josie: Yes, exactly like justice. Who is supposed to determine whether or not you’ve been adequately rehabilitated, and who has the authority to know if you’ve changed enough, and often, it’s just up to the system to kind of make that determination and that’s not a system we want deciding if people are different enough. 

Derecka: Absolutely. 

Josie: Okay so that was our word of the day: rehabilitation. Now back to our main topic: the school to prison pipeline. I feel like Derecka, that this is one of those phrases that many people have heard and it’s become part of the lexicon, but I don’t think people have a solid idea of what it really means. 

Derecka: The school to prison pipeline exists when students are thrust into contact with law enforcement or the criminal legal system in schools, primarily through disciplinary policies or practices or some other mechanism that removes them from the environment of learning and puts them within carceral control.

Josie: Right.

Derecka: Now, that could — and does — often mean many things. The school to prison pipeline rears its head in many ways Josie, but before we get there, let’s give a little context. 

Josie: Let’s go back to 1954, this is the year of Brown vs. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional. I think actually that ruling was actually much more complicated that people tend to think and the court basically made it impossible to enforce that ruling, which is why school integration has been in large part a failure in America — but that’s a different topic for a show. At least on paper, the court did what a lot of white people in America were terrified of, right? They ruled it was unconstitutional to keep black kids out of white schools.  

Derecka: Right. So if this was a movie, it would cut to like three years later. The setting is Little Rock, Arkansas, and we have nine black students enrolled in school at an all white school, Central High School, white people are angry, they’re furious. They have woken up at the crack of dawn. They’re standing outside in advance of the first day of school waving Confederate flags, spitting, cursing, screaming racial slurs, I mean if you haven’t seen these videos you just have to because the images, the footage is so so jarring. The governor himself deployed the National Guard not to help the students, not to help the Little Rock Nine, but to help the segregationists.

Josie: Right. For weeks, these kids could quite literally not enter school because of the National Guard and the people who gathered outside everyday to torture them. President Eisenhower had to call in the United States Army to escort these kids to class. It’s just mind boggling. It took the United States Army. So here’s a clip from the news on the morning of September 4th, 1957, this is the day these nine students were supposed to start school.

[Begin Clip]

Man: This is Little Rock Central High School approximately two hours before the school is scheduled to open its doors for the fall semester. As yet they are of course, are no negros present. There are approximately 200 National Guardsman, state troopers present here on orders of the governor. They were instructed by the governor in a special television speech last night. Here’s what the governor said: “The mission of the state militia is to maintain or restore order and to protect the lives and property of citizens. They will act not as segregationists or integrationists, but as soldiers called to active duty to carry out their assigned tasks.” Those were the words of Governor Faubus in a special television speech last night. Just moments ago, there was a burst of spontaneous applause as a flag was displayed. Not only one burst, but two bursts of applause from 500 or 600 persons gathered here some one hour before the opening of Little Rock Central High School.

[End Clip]

Derecka: So these nine students were basically tortured every day. All sorts of awful things happened to them. Students would set up traps in bathroom  stalls and drop flaming pieces of paper onto them. One girl had acid thrown into her eyes. Another girl had a bomb thrown through her window. Often, these racist acts went unpunished or not even condemned.  After being relentlessly taunted by a group of white boys, one of the Little Rock nine, Minnijean Brown, dropped a bowl of Chili onto a group of white boys after being relentlessly taunted by them, and guess who was suspended Josie?  

Josie: I’m guessing it wasn’t the white boys. 

Derecka: She was suspended for almost a week. 

Josie: I know it’s crazy. And this was after obviously people have just been torturing them for a year and no consequences.

Derecka: Yes.

Josie: Two months after the Little Rock Nine starts school, a committee led by a County judge in New York City was formed to study juvenile justice in New York City. They suggested that New York City put cops in every school. The judge said that, quote, “There are in fact dangerous delinquents in our public schools, that they are in fact corroding the school morale, and they should be ousted. Otherwise, gangsters and disturbers will continue to run amok in our public schools.”  Now, it’s important to note, the Judge was talking about certain schools, the schools with black and brown students. The superintendent of schools in the city said he didn’t want this because, quote, “We do not want a Little Rock in New York City.” 

Derecka: Wow. So, we bring up the Little Rock Nine for a few different reasons. First, it’s a reminder that access to education in America has never been inextricable from race, and race has never been inextricable from policing, or even militarism. You heard the newscaster repeat the governor’s words that he brought in the National Guard to, quote, “maintain and restore order.” 

Josie: It was an example of what we’re talking about today, the use of law enforcement in education to control black children and prevent them from accessing education. It’s also a very clear indication, getting to your story about Minnijean, of who gets punished in schools in America and who doesn’t, right?

Derecka: Right. It’s not a coincidence that, in 1958, just four years after Brown v. Board and one year after Little Rock, the first school resource officer program begins in Flint, Michigan. That sounds like a nice name, right Josie? School resource officer. 

Josie: Yeah school resource officer. Sounds like a nice person. 

Derecka: Who doesn’t love resources? 

Josie: I love resources. 

Derecka: But all that means is: police officer. School resource officers are cops. Period.

Josie: Right. For the next twenty years, this rhetoric about the need for more control in schools, more control of, quote, “delinquents” continues nationwide. There’s a lot of panic about juvenile delinquency. Again, it’s not a coincidence that this is happening after the Supreme Court says segregation is unconstitutional. And so during this time, many schools start encouraging teachers and administrators to identify, quote, “pre-delinquent” students. And that means students who haven’t done anything wrong, necessarily, but just seem like they will become delinquent eventually. Which, again, guess which kids those are? Can I just say also, Derecka and I are both parents, pre-delinquency in a kid is just being a kid. The whole point of going to school is to be in a space where you learn how to work with other people, a safe space, that’s not the regular world that, you know, it’s inhabited by adults. This idea of pre-delinquent kids just really infuriates me that for so long we’ve been identifying kids who have done something wrong before they’ve done something wrong.

Derecka: For a second I thought you’re gonna say all toddlers are delinquents, and I was gonna agree with you. Yeah, I like this point a lot better. You’re right. 

Josie: I actually was gonna say my child is certainly a delinquent, but he’s a very cute delinquent but there’s no question. 

Derecka: Very, very cute, but yes, you’re absolutely right and what was also happening around this time, so we have public schools that are supposedly being desegregated and now you have resource officers and school cops going into public schools while white children in the south are breaking off and starting private schools because they don’t want to integrate and guess where school resource officers are not being deployed? In private schools.

Josie: Exactly. Such a good point. So now it’s 1974, Congress passes the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act — which we talked about a little bit on a previous episode of this podcast with Elizabeth Hinton in our first season — and among other things, it granted authority to law enforcement to interact with kids based on pre-delinquency. In other words, for law enforcement to identify, punish, harass, and discipline children, based on behavior that literally hadn’t occurred yet. 

Derecka: Wow. I think one reason also it may have been occurring too is that around that time, again, there were race riots because of school busing. So there’s forced integration that, you know, is causing these explosive backlashes and so now schools are trying to figure out a way to keep certain kids out and like you’ve been asking whose kids are those? 

Josie: Exactly, exactly.

Derecka: Just a year later, the Washington D.C. superintendent of schools gave a speech at a national conference where he warned school administrators that some schools were, quote, “establishing a police state atmosphere” end quote. He said having all those cops in schools created, quote, “an atmosphere of fear and violence” unquote. Again, this is 1975. This is before extreme mass incarceration as we know it and think of it today. So, it only gets worse. Now, as we said earlier, the first official cops in schools program started in the fifties. But in the 1990s, it grew exponentially. Part of that is because the federal government starts actually paying to put more cops in schools. The Safe Schools Act of 1994 gave federal funding to schools with, quote, “severe crime problems,” end quote the 1994 crime bill is responsible for another 7,000 cops in schools. Before then, the decision to have law enforcement in schools was largely a local one, decided district by district. But now, schools were actually getting money from the federal government to hire law enforcement which means more and more cops in schools. 

Josie: And this is something that both of us remember about growing up. There were officers in my middle school and my high school. It just was normal. It wasn’t until I left high school and went to college where there weren’t police officers in my classrooms or in the hallway, that I realized how unnecessary and intimidating it was to have this law enforcement presence all of the time.

Derecka: I also know that, at least in my school, we had a bunch of other things that were just so carceral, right? So we had hall sweeps. So we had three minutes to transition between our classes and if you didn’t get to your class in that three minutes, the school disciplinarian would come on the intercom and say ‘this is a hall sweep, teachers lock your doors,” and there would be complete chaos. So teachers would lock the doors, students would start running towards class, school police officers and the disciplinarian would literally go run floor by floor, hallway by hallway and round up students to take them to in school suspension for the period.

Josie: Just unbelievable.

Derecka: A hall sweep. So now that I’m thinking about hall sweep, I am also thinking about the immigration context that could also come up because, you know— 

Josie: Right.

Derecka: Even though I haven’t heard of any ICE raids on schools, not to say that hasn’t happened, I just haven’t heard of any. I mean, I know those students who are undocumented are probably especially vulnerable to the school to prison pipeline. You know, just imagine being undocumented or having undocumented parents and going to school every day with the presence of law enforcement, having to extra monitor your every move or, you know, having an encounter with the teacher or another student. I mean, it just has to be such a vulnerable and precarious situation to be in.

Josie: Right.

Derecka: There was just a culture of we’re going to be punished, disciplined, infractions, in school suspensions, out of school suspensions, it colored so much of my middle and high school years. 

Josie: I remember having like police dogs at schools like smelling lockers for drugs. We had metal detectors every single day. My freshman year of high school we had to have a mesh backpack or a clear backpack because they had to make sure they could see what was in them. We had strip searches. I mean, there was just a ton of surveillance, right? Like cameras, tracking students, it often just felt like we were already in trouble just for being in school. So part of the problem, I think, with having cops in schools and really seeing law enforcement around all the time is the presence of law enforcement just becomes normal. You know, you’re in English class, and there’s officer, ours was Officer Johnson was our main one, and that’s just kind of considered real life to you that officers are around all the time. And then the other problem, of course, is that cops in schools actually do real harm, and especially, again, to black and brown kids. 

Derecka: You know, when people think about the school to prison pipeline, they often see teenagers and teenagers being carted off to jails or prisons but it’s important to note that the proliferation of law enforcement in schools isn’t just a high school thing. You know, we’ve seen the viral videos and clips of kids as young as five and six being handcuffed, I mean, arrested by school cops. You know, we could talk about cops in schools all day and we’ll get to talk more about it with our guest. But first, let’s cover a few other forms of school discipline. Another way that the school to prison pipeline manifests is in how schools choose to discipline their kids. As mass incarceration gets harsher and more widespread, so does school discipline. Here’s a clip from a speech that Bill Clinton gave in 1998 where he talks about the need for harsher school discipline. 

[Begin Clip]

Bill Clinton: We have worked hard, especially in the schools with a Safe and Drug-Free Schools Program. We’ve supported communities and schools that offer anti-truancy, curfew, school uniforms and dress code policies. We have strictly enforced zero tolerance for guns. Last year alone, over 6,000 students with guns were disarmed and sent home. This year, recently, a new report showed that the overwhelming majority of our schools are in fact safe. But it’s not enough, as we know from the recent rash of killings in our schools all over the country. When children in inner city schools have to walk through metal detectors, when high schools in small towns like Jonesboro, Arkansas, in my home state, or Springfield, Oregon are torn apart by disturbed children with deadly weapons. When gang violence still ravages communities large and small, we have to do more. This fall, we are going to hold the first ever White House Conference on School Safety. And today we’re taking two steps that I think will make our schools safer and our communities stronger. First, offering a guide to help prevent school violence before it starts and second, expanding the remarkable police corps program to Massachusetts and elsewhere.

[End Clip]

Josie: Now, we’ve talked on this show many times about the general arc of mass incarceration in this country. It’s a bit simplistic to identify any one time as the beginning of mass criminalization in America, because certain people — black people, brown people, poor people — have always been over punished, throughout the history America but if we’re tracing this iteration of what we’ll call modern mass incarceration, it starts to really rev up in the early-to-mid 1980s. 

Derecka: Part of the increase in mass incarceration comes from harsher sentencing and widening the net of the people who get caught up in the criminal legal system. So you start seeing suddenly more mandatory minimums. People being arrested, jailed, released, arrested, jailed, released. Inside school we see those exact same parallels. More zero tolerance policies. More three strikes laws. More of the exact same policies in schools, an increase in zero tolerance policies that automatically and severely punish kids for infractions, regardless of circumstances. These policies have been regularly taken to the extreme. Kids have been expelled for bringing nail clippers or scissors to school. In some schools, any school argument or fight means an automatic arrest, suspension or expulsion. Vague infractions like “threatening behavior” or even talking back can result in a student being kicked out of school, arrested or both. Kids who may show signs that indicate a deeper reflection of societal problems, like substance abuse or mental health or emotional issues are criminalized rather than treated. Zero tolerance in particular has funneled countless kids through the pipeline. 

Josie: In 1994, the same year that Clinton signed the crime bill, he also signed the Guns-Free Schools Act. What this law did was mandate that every state receiving federal funding, at all any the way, any federal funding, have laws on the books that mandated two things. First, any student who brings a weapon to school has to be mandatorily suspended for at least a year. Second, schools would also be required to notify law enforcement about the student. Now, one thing Derecka is that I think to a lot of people, that sounds like a good thing, right? We live in the age of Newtown and Parkland and so, you know, school shootings are really scary for a lot of people, and everyone wants their kids to be safe. But what we know is that these policies haven’t worked. You know, like this was passed in 1994. Schools aren’t safer from violence like that, from mass violence by students. Instead, all zero tolerance has really done is make it more likely that kids dropout of high school altogether, or end up in the criminal legal system. And it really has a broad definition of weapon too, right? Like every weapon is not a gun. Kids can be kicked out of school for having any number of things that the school may consider a weapon.

Derecka: Oh, yes. I don’t know if you remember but when I was in high school, there was a kid who was a part of the Jena Six in Louisiana. 

Josie: Oh, that’s right. 

Derecka: He was prosecuted for using a shoe as a dangerous weapon.

Josie: Exactly. That’s a perfect example.

Derecka: Yeah. And then on the other hand, the kids who do bring guns to school, especially the kids who are funneled through the school to prison pipeline, often do so because they do not feel safe. And so arresting a kid who does not feel safe does not make that kid safe. It does not make any kid safe. So again, rather than getting to the root causes of why children don’t feel free and safe they do and repeat the same logic of the criminal legal system, which is to expel and to punish, to isolate and to put into a cage.

Josie: Totally. I think that’s such an important point that not everybody who brings, I mean, look, I am not advocating kids bringing guns to schools. I think the point here is that not every kid who gets caught up in this law and like having to be mandatorily suspended for being a weapon to school, is doing so because they’re trying to hurt someone because they’re trying to do a school shooting. Like that’s not actually what the numbers say, right?

Derecka: Oh, absolutely. And unfortunately, most of the kids who, like I said, are getting funneled through the school to prison pipeline, they, interestingly, aren’t even the same population of kids who are committing the school shootings. 

Josie: Exactly.

Derecka: And that’s not advocating for kids to go to jail either way it’s just unfortunate that the system that is set up, I mean it is so frustrating. The critique that we should not create, you know, institutions and systems based on extreme cases it’s primarily because of this. So to say that, you know, because of Parkland or back in my day it was Columbine, right? So kids who are bringing guns to school, we have to stop that. But whose kids does it fall on the harshest and has it stopped school shootings? Absolutely not. 

Josie: Right, exactly. 

Derecka: There’s this clip that happened, I think, late last year of, you know, there’s this kid who is crying, brought a gun to school and there was this coach, this black coach who was like in the corner of this hallway

Josie: I know, I remember that.

Derecka: He talks the kid out of shooting and this kid hands him the gun— 

Josie: And they hug. It’s so incredible.

Derecka: It’s the most beautiful and most emotional moment and it goes against the logic that we need more cops in schools. It’s like, well, we should address the reasons why kids feel unsafe in school in the first place, you know?

Josie: Exactly. 

Derecka: Between 1974 and 2000, the number of children suspended from school almost doubled, from 1.7 million a year to 3.1 million a year. Only 38 percent of kids who have been suspended twice or more graduate. Almost half of them dropout. 

Josie: That’s really kind of remarkable to think about the fact that if you’ve been suspended twice or more, you’re more likely to drop out of high school than to graduate.

Derecka: Well, the issue is that it’s all arbitrary and not the nature of the harm necessarily, because the Jena Six example is that the shoe was the violent thing, right? And it’s the same with police killings.

Josie: Right. Who’s quantifying it? 

Derecka: Exactly, yeah. So that the problem is part of that larger thing. Only 38 percent of kids who have been suspended twice or more graduate, almost half of them dropped out. So we’ve talked about how arbitrary the categories are for violent offenses that students are kicked out of school for and we’ve talked about, unfortunately, how students don’t feel safe coming to school, you know, maybe through their neighborhoods, or maybe, you know, for lots of different reasons. So that’s on the one side of it and on the other side of it, we just have completely arbitrary policies. I mean, according to the Advancement Project, here are just a few things, Josie, of what students have been suspended for. 

Josie: Okay, I’m ready. 

Derecka: I don’t know if you’re ready. Talking about a Hello Kitty bubble gun, hugging a friend, and chewing a pop tart into the shape of a gun. 

Josie: In what circumstance can someone really believe that their role as an educator or a person at a school charged with taking care of children, that they should be removing a student from school for any of those things?

Derecka: Similarly, kids have been arrested for things like scribbling on a desk and playing a song on their cell phone. Kindergartners have been arrested for throwing a temper tantrum.    

Derecka: I know, chewing a pop tart in the shape, now if it was a hot pocket then I 

Josie: Again, we want to emphasize these policies overwhelmingly and disproportionately hurt kids of color, in particular black kids. 70 percent of kids that experience a school-related arrest are black. White kids have a 1 in 20 chance of being suspended at least once and black kids have a 1 in 6 chance of being suspended.

Derecka: This brings me back to my internship at the Department of Justice when I was in law school and I had to look through all of these compliance records for schools in the south to see whether they were actually following the orders of the DoJ to stay desegregated. Many of those schools were obviously failing, this is 2016, and there were like, you know, over 100, maybe over 200 open cases. I remember, having to compare the school suspension rates for black students versus white students and it was just sort of accepted as normal whenever I flagged hey, you know, this school is suspending black kids three times more than white kids. And the response was, ‘Well, yeah, that’s sort of like normal. We don’t typically raise a red flag unless it’s like four or five more times.’

Josie: Unbelievable.

Derecka: So we just sort of take for granted, even the people who are fighting against school desegregation sort of take for granted that statistic. You know, and I also know that the way that this fact is combated is like, ‘Well, if kids are going to be disruptive then what should we do? Like? How should we be disruptive? You know, how can we combat students from getting in the way of learning or the safety of other people’s children?’ Which I think are valid, but also take for granted that we have to rely on officers and prisons, you know, suspension in order to get that done.

Josie: We’ve managed to figure this out throughout human history, you know, without calling the cops and so it seems like we could, I mean, to your point, we could continue to manage that.

Derecka: Yes. Because, listen, this is what’s at stake. You know,  the Advancement Project identifies four general ways that the school to prison pipeline continues to grow, and we have talked about two of them. We’ve talked about prison-like environments, and harsh school discipline. I think we should also talk about the two others. And these are particularly important, because they really further underscore why the pipeline is more powerful and more harmful in some places than others. The bottom line is that the pipeline thrives in schools where there is underinvestment.

Josie: I used to use the term under-resourced, and shout out to my friend Clara, who recently taught me that that term is misleading because often these schools have a wealth of resources, if we’re willing to expand how we think of that term, right? So this idea that these schools that don’t have high testing, right or have no resources as to imply that they don’t have kids who want to learn or teachers who want to help or like parents who want to be active. You know, it’s not true that nobody is interested in kind of, that these schools have nothing to offer. It is true that people aren’t investing in these schools, right? And these are to places that people with money and with access tend to invest.

Derecka: Well, you saying in other words, the pipeline’s most apparent in those schools with more cops than counselors. 

Josie: Yeah, exactly. 

Derecka: Okay. So schools without mental health resources or schools without social workers or art and music classes, even social studies, right? So these are schools without access to programming or without strong after and before care or extracurricular activities. You know, the schools that come to mind, you know, schools that can’t afford to build a fancy theater or don’t have kids going to the Ivy League every year. 

Josie: Right. 

Derecka: Now, maybe these are schools with classes that have 40 kids including kids who are homeless or hungry, like I was most of my high school career.

Josie: Right. And these are also the schools that are most likely to be just shut down when the budgets are cut. In my neighborhood, actually, they’d recently closed the elementary school for that same reason, and these are the places most likely to bear the brunt of privatization and I think what we’re really getting at is that this is a way of punishing people for poverty. That’s what the school to prison pipeline is. When there is investment in these schools, it’s in punishment, it’s in criminalization, it’s in more cops. It’s not in providing children with a school environment that they deserve.

Derecka: No, absolutely. I think that when you mentioned privatization, it made me think of this Naomi Klein, quote, and she says, you know, “[The author and intellectual] Cornel [West] has said that ‘justice is what love looks like in public.’ I often think that neoliberalism is what lovelessness looks like as policy.” It’s like how you take away resources, how you cut and gut the public sector to really push towards privatization and making everything so competitive because when you do that people of color, poor people, women, you know, all of these groups, First Nations people, they all lose out. And it’s not simply like a one to one trade off. It’s not like, ‘Okay, take a cop out of a school and drop in a counselor.’ It doesn’t work like that, these children and their parents, their neighbors, their communities deserve complete transformation. So we have to make sure that it’s not only that their schools are being transformed, but the neighborhoods that they live in, the communities that invested in the foods that they eat, it’s really about catering to the whole child.

Josie: To discuss the school to prison pipeline and more, we will be joined by  Judith Browne Dianis. She is an American civil rights attorney and the Executive Director of the Advancement Project and we’re so excited to have her on. So please stay tuned. 


Derecka: I am so so so excited to be sitting across from Judith Browne Dianis aka my former boss, aka the legal Beyonce.


Judith Browne Dianis: I’ll take that.

Derecka: Okay good. It’s hard to give it up  but I think you’ve earned it. Judith Browne Dianis is the Executive Director of Advancement Project where she’s been since 1999, doing all sorts of work across voting, criminal justice reform, school to prison pipeline, immigration, I think most recently, was the most recent area of work added. And today we’re going to have a conversation with her about the school to prison pipeline.

Judith Browne Dianis: I’m excited.

Derecka: And so I will give her a chance to tell a little bit about herself before we hop into the conversation.

Judith Browne Dianis: Sure. Well, thanks. I am excited to be here too. I call Derecka Judith 2.0 and really probably like 4.0 because she takes my game to another level and to be here with you and Josie who was an intern of ours and now she’s a grown up lawyer, is pretty incredible and also just tells me that I’m old as hell. But anyway. So I am Judith Browne Dianis, I’m Executive Director of the National Office of Advancement Project and have been there as Derecka said, for 20 years. I’m excited to talk about the school to prison pipeline, because it was the beginning work of Advancement Project. So we started doing that work before it had that name. So it has been one of my babies, I will say that I’ve been honored to be called the godmother of that movement. And so really excited to be here to talk to you all about it.

Josie: It’s so interesting that you say that you guys were kind of doing this work before it even had that name. Can you talk a little bit about what that means and what that looked like? I think people sort of have heard the term but they don’t really know what the school to prison pipeline is so having a sense of the history of you all’s work would be really helpful.

Judith Browne Dianis: Sure. So when we came to the work, literally we opened our doors in 1999 and there was an instance in which a few black males had been in a fight at a football game in Decatur, Illinois and they were 17 years old, they were seniors, and it was like televised on TV, t was in the stands. And those males were expelled from school and they were told that they would be suspended for two years. And of course, they’re seniors. So they, you know, that they’re probably going to drop out. So Reverend Jesse Jackson called us and said, we literally just opened our doors, I was like, you know, isn’t this a civil rights issue? And so the school district was talking about them being suspended under their zero tolerance policy. And at the time, nobody knew what the heck zero tolerance policies were, have no idea, but we also knew that the community groups that we were working with at Advancement Project were talking about the fact that young people were being pushed out of schools and they were being suspended and kids were on the streets and they didn’t they had no idea why this was. And so we started doing research, I literally set out to figure out what the hell is this thing called zero tolerance? And so went and talked to school officials and figured out that schools have put in place these policies that mirrored the criminal justice system where three strikes, you’re out was happening. So three in school suspensions, then you were being expelled. They were using all of the kinds of practices that we know now are very wrong from the criminal justice system in our schools and so it would be for very minor things. We started looking at the data and realizing that black kids, of course, were getting hit hardest by these things. And that what was happening was it was a series of both policies and practices that were happening in schools, that whether it was suspensions, expulsions, but then even more ominous, probably around 2003, is when I started to like do research and figured out, it actually was a community in Mississippi, where we started to realize that there was something more ominous that was happening. That in fact, it wasn’t just missed days of class, out of school for suspensions, but that young people were being referred to the juvenile justice system, either they were being arrested, or they were being sent to, for example, in Mississippi, the Youth Court, which is their juvenile court, for minor things that would happen in school and that kind of came up out of like a community in Jefferson Davis County, Mississippi was the first time I ran across this where two black girls probably like ages 15, best friends, had a fight in school one day and they of course, had a fight, no one got hurt. They went home, they became best friends again, they made up etcetera. The next week, they got a knock at the door of each of their homes with the sheriff saying you got to come to Youth Court. And when you come to Youth Court, what they were doing is they were doing roundups of black kids in front of the courthouse where there would be one lawyer who would represent all the kids because Mississippi, they don’t have a public defender system and so those kids would be sent into the court where that lawyer would represent all of them, even the kids who fought each other, and then they would be told, their advice to them would be to take a plea, and that that plea would be community service, a $500 fine, and we’re talking about the lowest per capita income in the state of Mississippi. So take the plea, do the community service hours, community service hours where basically you were going to work for some white business in town, cleaning up outside their business, etcetera. 

Derecka: Like convict leasing.

Judith Browne Dianis: Yeah, no, totally for teenagers. Right. And so that got me looking at this issue about the connection and so while we thought it was just suspensions, then we figured out that there actually was a direct feeder into the prison system. And so that’s where it all came from.

Josie: I mean, that’s just such an unbelievable story. I mean, the fact that one lawyer is representing all these kids, the kids are kind of being leased out. I mean, you always think nothing else can sort of surprise you and what you’re hearing happen in a system and somehow there’s always something else that sort of boggles the mind.

Judith Browne Dianis: Right. And I mean, I think over time, as we started analyzing where did this come from, even zero tolerance, the term zero tolerance comes from the war on drugs, right? And so there is this connectedness, to what was happening in the criminal justice system that then comes into the schools and of course plays out for the same group of people where we see black people and brown people, those same policies being put on them, right? And so you have this mushrooming of this prison industrial complex at the same time that you have the mushrooming of the school to prison pipeline.

Derecka: Yeah. So Judy, I know you said the three strikes and then you’re out, it reminded me so much of the three strikes laws that we’ve also had come to — most of us not all of us — have come to condemn in 2020. Can you say more about the comparisons between the three strikes, you’re out of school, and the three strikes, you’re locked up in prison forever?

Judith Browne Dianis: Sure. So schools started using, they would suspend young people, and what they would do is ‘We’re gonna suspend you this one time and if you do it again, and again, that third time, you’re going to get a longer term suspension or you will get an expulsion.’ And literally just coming directly from what we were seeing in the criminal justice system that that would happen. But the thing that we want to add to that is it’s not just the time out of school, right?

Josie: Right. 

Judith Browne Dianis: So that the school to prison pipeline isn’t just these policies, but it’s also the consequences of these policies. So if I am out of school, what we do know is that research shows that a young person who is suspended at least once in ninth grade, is two times more likely to drop out of school. So if I am suspended, I’m more likely to drop out, I’m more likely to fail in school, right? Because any day that I’m out of a classroom for suspension, then I am missing learning and they’re not making it up. I can’t make it up. They give me zeros. So now I’m going to fail academically. The more likely I am to wind up in the juvenile justice system and the criminal justice system because number one, if I’m out of school, what am I doing, right? Number two, the system then feeds on me because I am now this young person who is in the system, which they’re always going to look for something for me to trip up on because some schools actually come back and say, we want to contract with you, the same thing we see in the criminal justice system, and if you mess up, we’re gonna expel you. So we know if you’re suspended, more likely you are to fail, the more likely you are to drop out, the more likely you are to wind up in the juvenile criminal justice system, the more likely you are to live a life in poverty and all of the consequences of that. 

Josie: Judith, can you talk a little bit more about the contracts that you just mentioned? I think that’s a particularly unknown and pretty harrowing part of the school to prison pipeline, contracts that just take advantage of children. Do you mind talking a little bit more about that? 

Judith Browne Dianis: Sure. So what we see is that young people who are suspended and the young people who get arrested in school and sent to the juvenile justice system, get a contract to return and it kind of are the conditions under which they have to live in order to either rehabilitate themselves or get themselves off of this constant watch and monitoring, but that’s exactly what happens is a constant watch and monitoring. So it’ll be things like you have to be in school on time, you can’t miss any days out of school, can’t get into a another fight or you cannot have another demerit or another incident in which you are likely to be suspended and if you do, it will up the ante and the consequences for you. And so it’s just like the probation system, right? It is like this ongoing way of keeping people under surveillance of the system or the school in this case, with often terms that are very difficult for young people to make, for some young people to be in school on time, I mean, I have a 17 year old, she’s never in school on time, and I take her to school every day. And so the idea that you have to meet these conditions, and we’re talking about young people, I think like that’s really, one of the things that has to be centered in this conversation around the school to prison pipeline is the way in which, especially for black and brown young people, the system, as in the school systems, not just the criminal justice system, sets up a system for them to fail, sets up a system of control of them and their bodies and their behavior, a system that is unforgiving, a system that shows no grace for them, a system that ignores the fact that they are teenagers, or even younger than that. Let’s talk about the six year old who was arrested last year in Florida, right? And that system says that we expect that we are going to control you because you can’t control yourselves.

Josie: Right. And I think, you know, just thinking about the example of getting to school on time. A lot of these kids are reliant on not just other people, to your point about your daughter, but public transportation, other systems, things that are just entirely out of their control. It’s not just a question of defiance. It’s a question of ability.

Judith Browne Dianis: Exactly. For example, LA for the longest time had this system where they would giving young people tickets for being late to school or being truant, and the tickets had a fine up to like $500 and what they found, and this is because of organizing that was happening of young people on the ground in LA, that a lot of those young people were maybe late to school because they had to go an extra long way because they were trying to get around gang territory. They were out of school because they were taking care of their siblings because their parent had to work three jobs. And so this system also doesn’t take into account people have real lives, nor does it care about the explanations for what may be happening in a young person’s life. Instead, just like we do in the criminal justice system, it is a system of punishment. It is an unforgiving system that doesn’t care. And you know, you have to layer, of course, race onto it, because the way in which schools will treat young people of color and black kids in particular, very different from what happens with white students, white students want to bring them in, bring in their families, ‘Oh, why did Johnny do this? This is horrible.’ Black Johnny comes in and it’s a totally different story, right? Because there is a system and people who think that there is something inherently bad about black children.

Josie: Right, right. 

Derecka: Judy, when I was in high school, there was a fight that broke out and I would not forget that in the midst of that fight there was this kid who was a junior at the time, he was being pulled away by a school police officer and him being pulled away, I think he made the opposite trip like it wasn’t intentional, you know, made the officer trip and he turned around and apologized and the officer stood up and punched him in the ear. And that moment I felt so frozen because this is the officer we would literally see every morning, we would walk through the metal detector, unzip our book bags, he would go through, say good morning, it felt so regular. So to see him stand up and punch a student in his ear, the side of his head was just so jarring for me. He was there the next day like it didn’t even happen. And so many times when I hear about the school to prison pipeline it is usually the story of the other two kids fighting or there was this one kid who was doing XYZ. But as we’ve seen in the media, I know, especially Advancement Project, a lot of the violence it’s not between two students it’s between a school police officer and a kid, so I’m just wondering if we can talk about that and then some of the assault work that you are have been doing? 

Judith Browne Dianis: Sure. So as we were kind of looking at this issue around police in schools, what we were finding is that while I think this is true for, and again, it mirrors what’s happening in society, which is that white communities and white schools get the protect and serve and black communities and black schools get the law and order, and that the cops that are in our schools in black and brown schools are doing all of the things that they do in our neighborhoods, which is that they are hyper masculine, they are the authority, they are power and they don’t like to get tried. What we often see is not just, so there are the assaults, but even before the assault, there is the level of disrespect that happens especially for teenagers from cops and so while people call them school resource officers — first of all, we need to stop calling them that, they’re cops — and they are no resource. 

Derecka: More officer, less resource.

Judith Browne Dianis: Right, exactly. And the reason we need to get away from that is because they also think that they should now be counselors, because as more people call for more counselors they are like, ‘Oh, we can do that.’ Hell no, thank you. The problem is that these cops who are in schools, there’s a culture clash. Which is that schools are supposed to be a place for nurturing where young people can live up to their potential and they can thrive etcetera, and cops are people who enforce criminal codes. And so they’re coming into an environment where they’re ready to enforce the criminal code when young people need all kinds of understanding and to be taught and to, you know, all kinds of restorative justice, etcetera, and they’re not there to do that. You know, they don’t de escalate situations in schools a lot of times, you know they are, they’re ready to, you know, beat in heads just like they do any other place. And so we have been tracking some of these assaults over the years. So like one of the moments for me that was kind of like a moment where I personally felt like I had to double down on my commitment to this work, well, there were two, one is in 2004 in Goose Creek, South Carolina, there was an incident where the cops came into a school and raided the school looking for drugs. And they came in like a SWAT team with their dogs and all that and happened to come into somehow this one hallway where there were mostly black kids in the hallway, guns drawn, ‘everybody on the floor,’ had kids on the floor, they had them up against the walls with their hands behind their backs, just like any other drug raid that you would see in a community they did in a school hallway. They came up with nothing. There were no drugs, right?

Josie: Right. 

Judith Browne Dianis: But just imagine you’re in a hallway because you are getting ready to go to another class and in comes the SWAT team. 2005, a little girl named Ja’eisha, in Pinellas County, Florida throws a temper tantrum because she doesn’t want to stop a jelly bean counting game. They catch it on video because they are going to use it as a training tool for teachers on how to de escalate situations. She throws a little temper tantrum in the classroom. 

Derecka: How old is she?

Judith Browne Dianis: She’s in kindergarten. She starts throwing these jelly beans around the room because she doesn’t want to stop playing the game. They take her down to the principal— 

Derecka: Also sounds like my six year old.

Judith Browne Dianis: I know you can understand this, right? Yeah, ‘I want to still play this game. No, I’m not stopping.’ They take her down to the principal’s office where she goes into the principal’s office, she pummels the teacher with her little hands. The teacher walks out, she’s ripping things off the wall because she’s still throwing her temper tantrum. The teacher walks out. The principal walks out, when they leave, she sits down.. in walk police officers, two police officers. They tell her ‘We’re gonna have to arrest you.’ They pull her up out of the chair. They push her down on the table, pull her little arms by the back and handcuff her. They take her out to the police cruiser where they put her in the back of the car, put shackles around her little ankles and left her there crying for her mommy for hours because mom was at work. And that was caught on video and it was highly televised. And it’s just cops don’t belong in schools, number one. We have a campaign called Police Free Schools that is about the idea that we have got to get cops out of our schools. We’re tracking the assaults. We have a website called where we have a map and you can go on top of that map and look at some of the highlights and what we’re actually tracking is nowhere near the number of assaults that are happening because we’re only tracking them because we find out about them because they’re in the media, they’re on social media. Young people are, thank goodness for young people, they are snapping those videos, so that we can see what the hell is going on in our schools. But it is a significant problem and unfortunately, young people don’t have a lot of power to do anything about this individually. But that’s why the organizing comes in, right? Because we’ve got to know that they just don’t belong around our children, if we don’t trust them on the streets, in our communities, why are we gonna have them in the hallways of our schools around our babies?

Josie: Yeah, I’m just thinking about what Derecka said about her experience with cops in schools and we talked about this earlier on the first section of the podcast, but I had a similar experience, cops in the schools, metal detectors, etcetera. And it just becomes really normalized. It just doesn’t end up being a huge deal that you’re seeing a cop in the hallway, you just get used to it and it really makes you wonder what that does to your perception both of law enforcement and of school as a child, and that’s what these are, these are children.

Judith Browne Dianis: And also to Derecka’s point, the other thing is that often when that kind of instance happens where the cop gets involved, the cop then hits the young person, the cop literally doesn’t have consequences. The young person actually can get the charges against them escalated, because they had an assault on a cop. The same thing happens with teachers. If a teacher gets involved in a fight and tries to break it up, then in the midst of breaking it up, they get hit that’s felony assault on a teacher. You know it isn’t just the fights, right? But young people are being criminalized in schools for very minor things. It could be trespassing because I cut school, I actually got suspended and I came back to school a day early because actually I don’t know where to go, my mother dropped me off at school because that’s where I’m supposed to be and you get arrested for trespassing. Let’s go back to the history, how we got here. We got here because of the crime bill, 1994 crime bill. We got here because of the Gun-Free Schools Act. There was one passed in 1990, then 1994 that accompanied the crime bill that also put zero tolerance in place for schools but then also because of the crime bill, all that money that went into community or into police, that then opened the door to federal funding for cops to be in our schools, right? And then we also know that anytime there’s a school shooting that happens, the reaction, the politicians, their knee jerk reaction is to put more cops in schools because they’re like, ‘Oh, well, you know, to make everybody feel safe is let’s put more cops in schools.’ Then, more recently, the ridiculousness of let’s arm teachers. Florida, for example, passed a law that now every school has to have at least one police officer, but they also, many states looking at the idea of arming teachers. And I think the thing that gets lost in all this is the tens of millions of dollars that we are spending on cops in schools, but it’s not just cops. It’s the militarization of our schools from the surveillance tactics, to the drug sniffing dogs. We have seen school districts that have whole police departments, right? Like Miami and Broward, LA, Oakland that actually have a whole police department with a chief and officers and dogs and cruisers, tens of millions of dollars that we spend every year on these school police departments, money that could be spent for other things for young people, including books, computers, you know, you got kids who don’t have—

Josie: School lunch.

Judith Browne Dianis: Right. My daughter’s school does not have laptops for every kid you know, she has a certain class which she can’t even take the books home but we can have a cop in school. So I mean, it’s, uh, you know, misplaced priorities as usual.

Josie: And just on that Parkland point, I think after, you know, the tragedy that happened at Parkland High School, it came out that there actually was an officer in that school and he wasn’t prepared to stop an assault like the one that that former student perpetuated against his former classmates, right? Like it was such an enormous planned assault that one officer wasn’t actually enough to kind of stop him and just to re emphasize your point that this is not even an effective way of stopping what scares so many kids and parents, which is mass shootings, right?

Judith Browne Dianis: Yeah. It’s not and I mean, we know that the things that work, are the things that we’re not putting money into. Restorative justice programs work, it’s the culture of a school that’s about building community so that when something’s about to jump off, or there’s, you know, there is a problem or a young person is kind of calling out in ways that’s not like verbal, that there are adults who care and they see it because they’ve built a community of trust. And those are the kinds of things that work. We’ve got 1.6 million students who attend a school with a cop but no counselor. We have districts where counselors are shared between schools. So there’s no one there to talk to. Peer mediation programs, all those kinds of things that we know could stave off some of the problems, but also just give young people the supports that they need, and give teachers, because the other thing is let’s not get away from the responsibility that the adults in the building have. I worry about the way that we sometimes frame this as like the problematic young people, when it’s actually also the problematic adults and probably more so because often with police being involved, it’s a teacher who calls in a cop into a situation that a cop has no business being involved in, right? That the teacher or the school should actually deal with. And those are the things that are not fights, right? It’s just like something that happens in class. You talked out a turn, you know, that becomes a disorderly conduct. Running down the hallway becomes disorderly conduct. ‘Let’s get the cop in to deal with this.’ So pushing this on to cops to be the enforcers and so part of our work over the years has been to reduce the involvement of cops in school disciplinary matters. And we started there, we started doing things like memorandums of understanding between the community, school districts and police department. And then as we know in the criminal legal system, you can get a win on something, like we got a win on that in Denver, that the system morphs and re adapts itself to give you the same outcomes. And so we have moved since then, in Advancement Project and working with the Alliance for Educational Justice and other groups around the country to this idea of our campaign, which is Police Free Schools, because we just realized we can’t keep playing around the edges, you got to just get them out of the school building.

Derecka: Oh, wow. That’s so so so important. You know, it wasn’t until I started working at Advancement Project that I learned that through the Pentagon Transfer Program, not only do police departments across the country get military leftover equipment from the government but also school districts. And just now hearing you talk about, you know, schools in Florida that have their own police departments, can you say more about that, because it’s not just getting cops out of schools, as what you said, it’s changing the culture and so can you talk about how expansive, what does this look like?

Judith Browne Dianis: So, there are many school districts across the country that have their own police departments, Baltimore, Miami, most of the major cities. And so that means that they are putting in millions. So, for example, in Miami-Dade, they had about $23 million back in 2017/18 that was allocated by the school board for the police department. They also have like another $372 million which is spent on security services. In Denver, their SRO program was like $1.2 million. And so what we know is they’re spending all this money, which is their education budget. Whether it’s from their state education department, but then the federal dollars that come in that pay for a cop to be in school, but then there’s also this thing called the 1033 Program. The 1033 Program is the program that gives money to states, cities and school districts to militarize and so that’s where they can buy all kinds of like cop toys. There are school districts that are sitting with tanks, you can purchase a tank, and they say that ‘We just want to be ready’ like ready for what? We don’t know. But the same kind of militarization and those toys that we saw in St. Louis after Mike Brown was killed are the same kinds of toys that school districts have bought and they are toys that are meant to kill. This mirrors exactly what is happening on the policing side and on the criminal justice side is what is happening in schools. It just happens a little slower. It plays out like a few years later in the school systems.

Josie: So as you’re talking, I’m thinking back to projects I did as an intern at the Advancement Project many years ago now. And you guys, first of all, you address a lot of different issues as part of your work, not just school to prison pipeline, but voting rights, etcetera. And you come at all of these issues in different ways. So I know you do national work. I know you work directly with school districts. There’s an organizing side. They are organizing elements to the work. There’s also litigation elements to the work. Can you talk to our listeners who might not know that much about the Advancement Project, about the myriad different ways that you attack this issue in particular?

Judith Browne Dianis: Sure. So at the heart of our work at Advancement Project is building power and for communities of color to be able to hold systems accountable to end structural racism and white supremacy. All of our work on the school to prison pipeline has been anchored in local campaigns around the country, mostly of young people. Teenagers who are working with grassroots organizations who are organizing to change their schools for the better. And so, we support groups like there’s a group in Florida called Power U Center, which we did some work with them, they just had a big win where they got more money put into school counselors, they’ve gotten more money put into restorative justice programs. This just happened, it’s a budget fight there. In Denver, we’ve worked with a group called Padres & Jóvenes Unidos for a number of years, actually since 2003 we’ve been working with them. We first started with changing the school discipline code, because we knew that too many young people were getting suspended. And especially for the really discretionary things like disobedience and disrespect and things like that, that would get hit against black and brown kids in particular. So we worked with them and changed the school discipline code. Then they were able to get a memorandum that limited the role of police in schools and now the young people there do quarterly meetings with their school district and give them report cards on how they’re doing on discipline and policing in schools. 

Derecka: That’s amazing. 

Judith Browne Dianis: And so to see that trajectory from we can’t get information to now, you know, yeah, you got to sit down with us and it’s the superintendent who sits down with them, and the school board hears from them. And then we are doing work in Philadelphia with a group called Philly Student Union. So across the country, we’re supporting these organizations of young people who are calling for something different. And now we started this Police Free Schools campaign with the Alliance for Educational Justice and about eight youth organizations across the country. We’re now at 20 groups who are part of the campaign, they range from there’s a group in Oakland called Black Organizing Project, who just came very close to getting police out of schools in Oakland, and they’re continuing that campaign. And part of the ideas that there are different ways, strategies that we go at this. But one of the most important strategies is a divestment strategy, which is how do we take the money that is being spent on cops in schools and put it into the things that we know work, the things that nurture young people, the things that de escalate any problems in schools without the involvement of the criminal justice system? And then also how do we get rid of the policies, decriminalize, right? How do we get rid of the policies and the laws that criminalize young people in schools? And so we’ve been having incredible, I think, momentum, when I look at suspensions, suspensions are down. That’s because of this movement around the school to prison pipeline. It’s because of all the work that’s been put in over the years. And so now taking on the police is a big thing, right? Because you’re, you’re working against concepts of safety and there’s something to it when people think about safety, like black people in particular could be like, ‘Yeah, we don’t trust the police. We are down with the police. We don’t want them. We don’t need more police.’ But when you talk about safety in schools, people automatically say, ‘Yeah, we need cops in schools,’ right? Because there’s like this disconnect for them around their children and that is something that we have to overcome, because they’re the same damn cops, right? And so part of this is how do we get people to the idea of a new vision around safety, which again, is the same thing we’re doing in the larger movement. Often I feel like we disconnect the school to prison pipeline issue from our larger movement issues, and it is dead center and it is where we actually have some really robust organizing happening. It’s just that they’re young people, but they’re calling for the same things. They’re calling for police to get out of their lives and to be able to handle these situations in a very different way. That doesn’t lead to incarceration. 

Derecka: Ooo, goosebumps. It’s so real. And what’s so powerful about what Advancement Project is doing, it’s kind of calling everyone out on their BS. So people always say the children are the future, then children say ‘We don’t want cops in the schools’ and it’s ‘Oh, no those children.’ It’s children are the future and then you have the kids in Parkland, many of them were against cops in schools saying that ‘We don’t want this because we know basically don’t use the tragedy at our school to get more cops in schools that’s gonna disproportionately impact black and brown kids.’ And what adults say? ‘Oh, not those kids.’ So the children are the future, but there’s been so few organizations that have really worked to help mobilize them and Advancement Project is definitely one of them.

Judith Browne Dianis: And that school district in particular, Broward, we have been doing work with, actually is the one place where we’ve been actually doing work directly with the school district and like the local NAACP and had worked with them on a program that was a kind of a success program where you didn’t have to put young people into the criminal justice system, right? And it was kind of like a diversion but still giving young people the tools, understanding what they needed, etcetera, to really thrive and so as a result of the program, we were seeing the number of arrests going down. And that’s because they had a superintendent who I remember he used to be in Chicago, when he became superintendent we started talking to him about doing some work around implicit bias with Dr. Phil Goff right? And we were like, you got cops, let’s do this project and I remember saying to him at one point it’s time for you to take another step, which is to work on these cops in your schools. And he was like, ‘Okay, let’s do that,’ right? Black superintendent. And he set up this program and it was really, really working and the backlash that they got, because they had decided to take a step back from criminalizing young people was really severe. But that’s the other thing is that in this work around police free schools, we come up against not only the ideas that people have in their heads around safety, but you come up against teachers unions, who are like ‘Yeah we want more cops,’ and then you come up against police unions, right? So it’s the same fight that we have is police unions want to protect their jobs and protect, you know, being in schools and so I always say it’s the same fight, just a different building. You know?

Josie: Thank you so much, Judith, for joining us. I mean, this is just so enlightening and important, just the wealth of knowledge you have about this issue and the intensity with which the Advancement Project has approached it all these years, the amazing work that you all have done, the real impact, we’re so grateful, and we’re so grateful that you took the time out of your busy, busy schedule to join us. So thank you again.

Judith Browne Dianis: Thank you.


Josie: Thank you so much to our guest, Judith Browne Dianis, what an excellent conversation and an honor to have you on the podcast. For notes about the show and to find out more additional resources please visit and don’t forget to check out Judith’s book bonus as well. You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts or on 

Derecka: Thanks for listening to Justice in America. I’m Derecka Purnell.

Josie: I’m Josie Duffy Rice. Next week we will continue to look at the schools and prison but this time we’re going to look at schools in prisons. So please make sure to check it out.

Derecka: You can find us on Twitter at @Justice_Podcast, like our Facebook page at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts.

Josie: Justice in America is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Research assistance by Nawal Arjini. Judith Browne Dianis’ interview was recorded at Cleancuts Washington, DC. The engineer Cory Foley-Marsello. Thank you so much everyone for listening and we’ll catch you next time.


Judith Browne Dianis’ Book recommendation: 

Josie: Hi, I’m Josie Duffy Rice and this is the Justice in America book bonus. I’m here with Judith Browne Dianis. She’s American civil rights attorney and the executive director of the Advancement Project. Can you tell us any books that you’ve read in the past or are currently reading that have influenced your view on criminal justice or have changed the way you think about the system?

Judith Browne Dianis: Yes, two books. I can’t give one but one is Angela Y. Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete?, and then Just Mercy (by Bryan Stevenson) and I think Just Mercy because a more recent one, I don’t know that it informed me as much as it made it real because the stories were so rich, and I think it brings to life Michelle Alexander’s work in a different way, like through storytelling in ways that you can just see the people and feel the system playing out through their lives.

Josie: Thank you so much. And thank you so much for joining us on Justice in America.