Epilogue: 2020, COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter Uprisings

As we were about to publish our findings, the contexts in which students were experiencing schools and education rapidly shifted. The COVID-19 pandemic, the Black Lives Matter uprisings, and the long-overdue growth in momentum around the movement for racial justice in schools all brought a new series of challenges and opportunities to school systems. 

This section further explores how the youth justice work of The District, its partners, and its school communities had changed, supported, or facilitated their ability to respond to the rapidly changing world. Our guiding question was: 

How did ESUHSD’s work around youth voice, power and participation inform the district’s responses to the radical changes, challenges, and opportunities brought by 2020?

“With the onset of the pandemic, everyone found themselves in a totally new environment that they did not imagine they’d be learning or living in. There was a lot of anxiety from students around what this would look like. So, one of the requests that was made right away, to which students got a pretty timely response, was a meeting with the superintendent and assistant superintendent of the district, in which the students shared with them, ‘these are our challenges, our questions, and these are some of the solutions that we have.’”

Rosa de Leon, CFJ Strategy Director

As in most places around the country, there were a myriad of questions about the future and context of schooling from students, families, teachers, and other stakeholders. For many families, especially families of color and low-income households, the pandemic brought an onslaught of additional challenges including loss of income, housing, and childcare. Moreover, the pandemic widened pre-existing disparities in access to basic needs ranging from food to digital and technological tools that families needed to continue schooling. Despite high levels of uncertainty, according to student leaders and organizers, the district was agile and responsive in figuring out how to leverage existing structures for youth voice and participation when responding to the pandemic. Starting with understanding what the students and families were going through, district leaders shared that the voices of youth and the spaces and relationships that had been built were instrumental. 

“Different needs came up: among them, one of the largest ones was mental health.”

Nhada Ahmed, CFJ Organizer

Additionally, high school seniors began to reflect on how the pandemic would impact their graduation from high school and their transitions into higher education. Other needs also came up, from access to housing to food, and with each of these needs came a conversation as to how the district could support students and their families. 

“It wasn’t only about how to restructure schooling, but about the needs that came up as priorities. And then, the Black Lives Matter uprisings began.”

Rosa de Leon, CFJ Strategy Director

Black Lives Matter, Racial Justice, and Redefining Safety in Schools

The egregious killing of George Floyd moved a long and enduring movement against racial violence into the national spotlight. As the country grappled with the ramifications of this struggle and its rise to the center stage, student leaders, organizers, and district allies at ESUHSD were ready and able to take quick and effective action, advocating for and responding in the moment to student needs and grievances.

A testament to the power of an organized and energized public, shortly after the BLM movement took center stage in the national conversation, a coalition of parents, students, teachers, and community-based organizations organized and published the Police Out of East Side Schools! petition demanding the following:

  • The immediate termination of School Resource Officer (SRO) agreements with local law enforcement agencies 
  • The immediate removal of any law enforcement personnel from school property during regular school hours and any school/run events and activities
  • Limiting the cases for which school staff can engage law enforcement
  • Investing in positive approaches to building a safe school climate including: “working with school stakeholders to create a safety plan”, “promoting youth and parent leadership to evaluate and advise the district efforts in school safety”, and implementation of restorative and trauma-informed justice practices

Thanks to the remarkable work of youth leadership and organizing that centered the voices of those actively marginalized by mainstream educational institutions within ESUHSD, the petition garnered more than 2,500 signatures. During the same time, youth leaders and district leaders began shaping and crafting what would become another important step in the district’s path towards educational equity and justice.

Resolution #2019/2020-42 Declaring that Black Students, Families and Staff Matter

Less than one month after the murder of George Floyd, ESUHSD became one of the first school districts in California to pass a resolution to remove police officers from their campuses and to terminate their contract with the San Jose Police Department (Angst, 2020).

For the youth, organizers, and stakeholders who had been doing this work, this did not come as a surprise. In fact, the district had already taken a prior step to diminish the role of officers in school at the beginning of 2018, when they updated their agreements to ensure police officers would not administer punishments to ‘rowdy’ students
(Angst, 2020). 

“It was really a quick turnaround from the district, but this was also the result of all the work that young leaders have been doing for a long time in the district. And they ended up winning, having the district not only vote to take SROs out of campuses, but vote on a lot of other important demands.” 

Rosa de Leon, CFJ Strategy Director

When we asked how much this was a result of the work around youth voice and power, de Leon shared: 

“Yes, the presence of young leaders in the district for this whole year has been key to make this happen in East Side, but also the Black Lives Matter Movement created the conditions for it to happen. If the BLM uprising hadn’t happened, it would not have created the pressure on the district to respond to [these demands].”

Rosa de Leon, CFJ Strategy Director

Just as importantly, the resolution was not only about the presence of police in schools, but about redefining what safety and care looked like, felt like, and meant in schools. 

“A big part of the resolution was to engage young leaders, especially Black and Brown youth in the district, to redesign what safety looks like, particularly for Black and Brown youth.”

Student Governing Board member

On the June 15, 2020, the district board signed what was titled “Next Steps—Unpacking Systemic Racism in our Schools.” Following a clear statement about “responding to the injustice and inequalities that have been further magnified in our educational system” (East Side Union High School District, 2020), the resolution included the following issues/actions: 

  • eliminating police resource officers from campuses during the day 
  • creating a task force to implement new policies of supervision and safety 
  • increasing student voice (in particular the voices of Black and Latinx students) 
  • developing a clear process for the implementation of Ethnic Studies frameworks and graduation requirement
  • investigating the process for implementing student feedback regarding student experience 
  • reviewing the curriculum and training for students regarding sexual harassment and dating violence 

These statements, written almost a year and a half after we had begun our research, carry the footprint of many of the conversations that we had heard in our original research. As a research team, it took us back to our conversations with students who at the time already understood the importance and the challenges of this work. Most importantly, these statements, alongside the work that is taking place, are reflective of the power of what had been built already. 

“There’s a weight lifted off the students’ chests, because police at school really impacted us very negatively. And it was very intimidating for people of color, how school police would target us. We will now go to school without being scared that we’re going to be targeted.”

Zoe, Student Leader

Long before this resolution, students were aware of the challenges of talking about racial justice with adults in the system. With the passing of this resolution, it is no longer optional. As Nhada explains, a lot of the conversations that CFJ, youth leaders, and district leaders have been having for years created a framework so that now, 

“It is not only just about police in schools, but about many other things. Now, one of their commitments is that from the beginning, they’re going to create some sort of task force to engage young folks in designing what that safety looks like… Also, there was a lot in that resolution including incorporating ethnic studies into the school culture and learning so that students [of color] see themselves reflected in their learning.”

Nhada Ahmed, CFJ Organizer