Illustration by Toni-lee Maitland.

Dream Defenders mobilizes to demolish the School-to-Prison Pipeline

A tumultuous crowd of people surrounded the Lincoln Memorial as Trenton Brooks, 21, eagerly stepped out of a bus filled with forty-nine other Dream Defenders from across the state. Brooks and his compatriots had an unbridled excitement as they prepared to experience the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary. Brooks, the chairman of Research and History for Dream Defender’s University of Florida chapter, was prepared to spread awareness of the organization’s mission along with his fellow activists in our nation’s capital.

About seventy or so speakers had been scheduled to pay homage to the historic march that day, the last of which was President Barack Obama. But Brooks was anxiously waiting to see Philip Agnew, executive director of Dream Defenders, take center stage. As Agnew prepared to present his speech, however, Brooks realized that another activist took his place instead. A bewildered Brooks soon discovered that Agnew, 28, had been cut alongside another scheduled orator due to supposed time constraints. Agnew, not letting such a setback silence him, followed up by launching a YouTube campaign in an effort to mobilize underrepresented and marginalized youth throughout the country.

The Dream Defenders, an organization that sprouted as a result of Trayvon Martin’s shooting, now hosts seven chapters across select Florida universities. By combating the criminalization of minorities at the root level, Dream Defenders is tackling an issue that has been commonly overlooked for decades: the school-to-prison pipeline. A stark trend affecting thousands of African American and Latino students nationwide, public schools are beginning to funnel students into the criminal justice system for minor infractions as a result of zero-tolerance policies that many public schools have adopted.

“We’re not just trying to combat the fact that a lot of students are being arrested,” said Azaari Mason, the Membership and Recruitment chair for the UF chapter of Dream Defenders. “We’re trying to combat the system that allows for a lot of students to be arrested.”

Mason, 18, defined the Dream Defenders’ number one priority as combating the unnecessary arrest of misbehaving — as opposed to criminal — students. Misbehavior, such as schoolyard fights, dress-code violations and talking back, is now classified as a misdemeanor criminal charge, according to Florida law. Alachua County turns out the sixth highest documented number of school-based arrests in the state.

“Alachua is a tiny, tiny county,” Brooks said. “And to be as bad off as we are is obscene.”

With a graduation rate of 55 percent for African American students, Gainesville clearly has a lot of work to do in order to tackle such a serious dilemma. Nearly 49 percent of black male students in Alachua County were suspended last year alone. These grim statistics are only worsened when coupled with the fact that once a student has been suspended, the likelihood of that student dropping out of high school doubles.

Utilizing the greater Gainesville community, Dream Defenders has been working on their most recent campaign: promoting the election of a new superintendent best equipped to deal with these pressing issues. Organization leaders like Mason and Brooks have not only been attending superintendent forums in local elementary schools, but they have also been reaching out to Police Chief Tony Jones who has been fighting relentlessly to combat this issue.

Following the template set in place by Clayton County, Ga., Jones is trying to work with a system that makes use of a restorative approach when working with misbehaved students. Funding that goes towards counselors would prevent the subsequent criminalization of these students and lead them down the right path.

“We want our children to be valued and educated instead of just fingerprinted,” said Diana Moreno, 26, a UF alumni and active Dream Defender.

The UF chapter of the Dream Defenders is pushing for Alachua County to be the first rural county in Florida to enact such restorative policies. Following the success of Clayton County’s system, a new program enacted by the Broward County School District requires any non-violent misdemeanor to be handled by the schools instead of the police.

Moreno has made it very clear that such a lofty goal will be difficult to attain for Alachua County. The Dream Defenders are pushing for a superintendent who is well aware of the school-to-prison pipeline. They are looking for a superintendent who is not going to use any extra funding that might be pumped into the Alachua County school system to hire more resource officers.

The unsettling statistics prove that some kind of change needs to be enacted if Alachua County wishes to both increase its high school graduation rate and decrease its suspension rate amongst minority students.

While Trayvon Martin’s tragic death catalyzed this movement, Dream Defenders is fighting more than just the systematic oppression of racial and ethnic minorities. They are fighting for any underrepresented group given an unfair stake in society.

“What we’re doing here is so powerful,” Mason said. “At the end of the day, this not just a black issue. It’s not just a Hispanic issue. It’s, first and foremost, a human rights issue.”