Respect, support, justice: Students Deserve

Just Talk - Voices of Education and Justice

In this week’s Just Talk, John Rogers sits down with five high schools students who are members of “Students Deserve” to discuss their activism and vision of educational justice. Students Deserve organizes young people at several Los Angeles public schools. Members of Students Deserve learn about about their rights and join in collective action to promote social justice in their schools and communities. Students Deserve is affiliated with the Schools that LA Students Deserve, a grassroots coalition that includes students, teachers, parents, and family members.


John Rogers (JR): I’d like to begin by having each of you introduce yourself and share one thing that led you to join Students Deserve.

Roseary: I’m Roseary, and one thing that led me to join Students Deserve was seeing how unfairly we were being treated. In ninth grade I was in the regular school and I was searched all the time, but once I moved to the magnet, I haven’t been searched at all. When I saw that there was a movement to stop searches, I wanted to do it, because I knew my experiences were unfair.

Jackie: My name is Jackie, and it all started when Ms. H asked my whole AP English class if we wanted to join Students Deserve. She told us what the program was about—specifically about racism, sexism, and students’ rights—and I instantly knew that I wanted to be in it. All of the problems that we’ve had historically, we’re still facing today. I knew that I wanted to be involved with something like that, and to talk to other kids my age, and in my school, and be able to share our stories with each other.

April: My name is April, and like Jackie I have two teachers who talk about Students Deserve all the time. They’re always talking about how we’re trying to make a change and a difference with how we’re treated as students, and I hadn’t really thought about going, because I felt like, “It’s not my problem. I don’t really need to do it.” But I actually ended up going, and I kept going, and going, and going, and going. And I’m still there.

Omar: My name’s Omar, and the reason I joined Students Deserve was because Mr. L had introduced it to us during class, and told us about how we were going to tackle social injustice issues. Prior to that, I’ve seen and experienced police harassment. I’m trying to make a difference by participating in this group. I actually face the things people hear about on the news, and I actually see these things on a daily basis. For example, over the weekend, there were these police officers that came to my park. I was playing basketball, and they just kept asking all these older black men, “Are you on parole, are you on parole?” Eventually they found somebody that was on parole, and they arrested him.

Tayah: Hi, my name’s Tayah and I found out about this program from my English teacher, Miss H. She introduced it to the entire class, and I thought to myself, maybe I should just put myself out there a bit more and get into more programs. After the first time I went to a meeting, I was surprised because I didn’t know that I could say no to being searched. I didn’t know that this was a problem, because in this school, they normalize stuff, including certain issues that need to be addressed.

JR: Tell me what you mean by that sentence that you said—that in this school, they “normalize stuff.” How does that happen, and what does that mean for you?

Well, the random searches; I thought it was just normal to be searched and have your belongings looked at without your permission. When I got into the program, I found out that I could actually say no to somebody going through my stuff without my permission.

JR: All of you raised a number of really important concerns, from random searches that seem to violate rights, to sexism and racism more generally, to police harassment outside of school. In what ways do you feel like these issues affect your ability to learn as a student?

Jackie: I feel like it’s interrupting my class time. You hear the administrators knocking on the door, really, really hard, and there’s one in front of either of the doors making sure that students don’t hide something, like we’re criminals. Sometimes when they come in, they count off and every fifth person has to get up, go outside, and be searched. Sometimes they’ll say, “If you have a weapon, step outside.” I feel like I’m in jail, like everyone’s hiding their weapons or drugs or something, and police officers are coming to my cell to search me. It’a wasting my time, and I see plenty of teachers who are tired of having their class interrupted and students being searched like this. And, like Tayah said, it’s been normalized, because now everyone is just like, “Ugh, another random search.” We start getting used to saying things like, “Yes, I have a Sharpie because I had a project due,” and then we have to step outside. Some students come back in, and some go with the probation officers. It seems like we have more probation officers than we have counselors to help us go to college. So, it’s just a big deal.

April: Nowadays, they don’t even ask for weapons; they just get this look, as if to say, “Oh, step outside if you have anything.” And we have to take out our hand sanitizers, our Sharpies, our coloring pencils, anything. Anything that can be used for bad purposes. I don’t know how a pencil can be a weapon.

Roseary: Like Jackie was saying, it interrupts our class time, and we already don’t have enough class time because we have block periods. I feel like you should just let the teachers teach for that amount of time, and don’t interrupt.

Omar: In my experience, it takes me back to the problems in my neighborhood. Constantly seeing these things makes one mentally exhausted, and I think that affects my learning in class. If you see these things every day, all of this negativity, and then you get to class… Society expects you to be like, “Oh, I want to learn,” and you can’t do that, because in your subconscious you know all these things that are wrong that are happening.

Jackie: When you’re in here, you get searched. You go into your community, and police are looking at you. They’re watching you like you’re on the prison yard. Like, they’re just looking at you.

Tayah: It’s not right. It’s like prison.

Jackie: I really feel like I’m in prison all the time. At school there are probation officers walking around saying, “What are you guys doing outside? Go to class,” even if we’re just socializing.

JR: I’m hearing you say, “I feel as if I’m a prisoner, and I want to be seen as something else. I want to be seen as this young person who’s trying to do right in my community, that’s trying to learn and move ahead.” What would need to happen for you to feel that way? What would need to happen for you to have experiences in this school where you get the message that “I’m a valued young person who has this extraordinary intellect that’s emerging.”

Jackie: I need more counselors in my school. I need more teachers. I need more AP classes. I have one teacher, Mr. L, teaching AP History. This whole class is filled. I have more friends who are very smart and they’re capable of being in this class and getting an “A”, but they can’t because there’s only Mr. L, and he only has one period of this class. Ms. H can only teach one period of AP, but there’s so many other kids that should take that class. So, I just need more AP teachers, I need more counselors, and I need less probation officers. I need less searches

Tayah: I feel like there needs to be more programs like this [Students Deserve], because if we get the message out there, I think people will be more likely to join and actually fight for their rights. There have been a lot of military recruiters here, but not a lot of doctors or engineers, and that’s basically setting us up for failure. I feel like there’s no place for me in the Army, so I’m like, “Why are you only giving me stuff about the military when you should be giving me more options about how to become a doctor or lawyer and things like that?”

Omar: I think the school’s really biased. They don’t give students who might be troubled the option to take more advanced classes. If they had more resources like therapists, and were able or had the opportunity to talk things out, as troubled as they might be, it’d actually help them to succeed. Because with many of us, behind all the troublesome attitude, there’s actually a lot of potential.

April: To add to this, I’m pretty sure that many wouldn’t feel as bad about school if we actually had classes that we enjoyed. I would love to have classes that had to do with Art, and Music, and Design or something like that. But I don’t have that. I’m stuck with classes whose fields I wouldn’t go into in the future, like Science. I love Science, and no offense to anybody, but I don’t want to be a scientist.

Jackie: The teachers want to help us, but at the same time, they’re under government supervision [which says to them]: “Don’t tell the kids they have all these rights, and that they can say no to these searches, because it will cause a big problem.”

JR: Some school officials would say that these random searches are a way to create greater safety on your campus. What would be your response to that? Do the searches make you and your classmates feel safer?

Omar: Well, not only does it take away from learning, but in my personal experience here at this school, they’ve never found anything.

Tayah: The time that I’ve been here, there’s never been a time where the security has actually arrested somebody for having a gun on campus. That’s never really happened.

April: It’s like the only reason they’re searching us is because we’re a school of Black and Brown children.

Roseary: Yeah. I have this friend that, like, not so long ago, I guess he crushed up some candy, and the candy was white, and it looked like powder, so didn’t they, like arrest him? And they, like, handcuffed him, because they thought it was cocaine, but it wasn’t, it was just candy. And he was trying to tell them that it was just candy, but they wouldn’t listen, and they still handcuffed him, because of that.

Jackie: They were quick to arrest him, and take him all the way to the police station to check the candy, even though, it’s like we tell them that we’re not lying, and it’s still not good enough for them.

JR: Earlier, you were pointing to the ways that some of these dynamics are racialized. What do you think needs to happen so that different sorts of relationships emerge between adults and young people?

April: I’d like to bring it to their attention and make them understand that their ideal of what is safe is not exactly safe for us as children. We don’t feel safe.

JR: And what would make you feel safer?

April: More counselors, but that would be a mental feeling of safety. Ha ha. Less policing, because as you might have noticed, we don’t feel particularly safe around cops. Fewer bag checks and things like that, because I want to learn. I don’t want to be distracted when I’m trying to figure out what this is and what that is. I don’t need people going through my stuff, and making me seem and feel like a criminal when I’m not.

Jackie: They bring probation officers and the police here to keep us safe, but why are they looking at me? Why are they trying to check me, when they should be checking our streets to see if it’s safe for us outside?

April: A lot of kids just get this really angry mentality as a result. They feel like, “Oh, if they’re gonna do this, I might as well do it anyway,” and it begins a downhill spiral.

Omar: The people who force these things upon us, like these random searches, haven’t grown up under our circumstances. They have no idea what it’s like to get randomly searched. I think just talking to these adults, and how we feel about all of these things, actually helps.

JR: Do you have a chance to talk with adults at this school about these issues, to deepen their understandings?

Tayah: They shoo us away. They might say, “Oh, I understand what you’re saying,” and then go off and do the same thing that they did.

Jackie: Well, we actually tried doing this when Ms. H. gave us this one assignment. A lot of people were coming from Black Lives Matter to talk to us and help out the community, and talk to us about just how different our schools, and schools of color are compared to schools in places like Beverly Hills. And we were trying to tell people about this, but we couldn’t even put posters up on the walls to inform people this was happening. The teachers, when we tried to give them flyers or posters and asked if they could announce it, ” they were mostly like, “Mm, no, not really.” We tried to get it out over the intercoms, and they wouldn’t let us. For us, that was like, “How do you want to help us if you keep pushing us away?”

JR: Let me go back to one other question about safety. Are there places or times during the school week where you feel particularly safe on campus? If so, what are those places and times?

April: Well, usually I feel extremely comfortable when there’s no one around when I’m on campus. If it’s just students, I’m good, but if there are adults and security, then I just feel like, “Oh, I shouldn’t be in here.”

Jackie: I feel safest in small crowds. When there’s a lot of people in a big group, staff always just rounds people up and I feel like I’m gonna be randomly selected. It’s like, “Hey, you, you, you, you. We’re taking you to the office. You were too close to this, and this, so we have to take you.”

April: I prefer to go against wherever most students are going because that’s where the security guards wait. They always watch where the current of students are going, and so I just avoid that.

JR: So, let me shift to Students Deserve. What do you feel like that organization is working for? What sorts of changes are you talking about in that group that will make your experiences and the experiences of other young people better?

Jackie: I feel like I’m getting informed, and I’m informing other people about how students have rights. The school is doing all of this to protect us, but we can actually inform them about better ways—ways that will benefit us and benefit them as well, as far as safety is concerned.

Tayah: Knowing that somebody else has the same view makes it even better. I know there are people who share these opinions, but they get shushed away, and they feel like they’re not listened to. This program, and knowing there are a lot of people who also want to see change and fight for their rights, is really good for me.

Jackie: If we didn’t have Students Deserve, there might just be a bunch of kids not wanting to give up their bags. So by having Ms. H and Mr. L, we feel like, “These two teachers understand us. They know that we have rights. They can help us, and they’ll help us speak to other adults and inform them that we do have rights.”

Roseary: Students Deserve has not only informed me about my rights, they informed me that I can defend myself without it being illegal. Because in truth, what they’re doing to me is illegal.

Omar: When it comes to random searches, when we were younger, we were kind of just like “Oh, yeah, this is what’s happening. I’ll give them my bag.” Now, we can stand up tall and say, “No, you cannot have this. This is my stuff. It’s my privacy. And nothing I have here is dangerous, so, thus, you cannot take it.”

JR: And when you stand up tall with that information, is there pushback?

Jackie: Yeah. They always try to make it seem like, “No, you’re wrong and I’m right. I get to check you, because this is my job, and this is what I’m supposed to do to help you out.” That’s when kids get scared. It’s very hard for kids to stand up when there’s three guards saying, “Oh yeah, we’re taking you to the office. You’re going to be written up or sent home.” It’s just very hard.

Omar: It’s pretty dehumanizing, but if other kids see us standing up for ourselves, I think it’ll give them the confidence to do it themselves. Whether it’s random searches or policemen trying to search them for no reason walking down the street.

JR: You say it’s dehumanizing; what exactly do you mean by that?

Omar: I come to school to learn, as a student. It doesn’t really feel like … I feel more like a prisoner.

Jackie: Sometimes, we just give up. The guards just say, “Oh, I want to check your bag, and that’s it,” and we’re just like, “Okay, here’s the bag. Check it.” We give up so easily, you know? We don’t put up a fight.

JR: Let me pull back from this set of issues, which are really important, to the national picture. The issues you’re describing—for example, young people not being treated with the respect that they deserve—these issues have been around for a long time. On November 8th, we had a new president elected. He has now been in office a little more than a month, and that has created a set of concerns that I’ve heard from some educators. I am curious about how you, your classmates, and others in your community are feeling about the Trump administration. How do you feel like it’s affecting you as a learner?

Jackie: I think it hits our community especially hard when he talks about increased funding for private schools. In our community, we don’t have that type of money to be putting into schools. We barely even have money to ask teachers to give us paper, because when we want to do a project or something, there’s no money. So, our parents have to put their own money into that project, and it’s just a very hard thing to put money into this private school idea. So it’s very affecting to me, personally.

April: Exactly, and the result of greater funding for private schools will end up with children not getting educated. Because there are children who don’t have the money for it, and those children might possibly have nowhere to go if the private schools kick them out, because that’s what private schools can do. And it sounds like they’re trying to selectively choose probably rich, white, male students.

Roseary: He wants to make all these immigration laws, and deport a lot of people, and in this community, there’s a lot of immigrants. During school, many students can’t really concentrate because they’re scared, and they’re thinking about what if something happens to them. So, that pulls them back.

Jackie: Yeah. Trump already deported thousands of immigrants. Many of my neighbors could, at any moment, be taken away. We have students who are worried about their parents and saying, “What’s gonna happen to me if something happens to my parents—will I go with them to where they were born? Will I stay here?” And it just causes a lot of drama. I know a lot of kids that go to school here who are not citizens, but they want to learn. They come here for a reason. I think they deserve equal rights if they’re here, and they’re learning. They’re not here doing bad things. They’re here to learn.

Tayah: I feel very disappointed with this country, because we’ve basically voted in a racist and a bigot and then people are just so surprised after he does all this stuff. He’s done this Muslim ban, and he does all this stuff, and all of a sudden people want to act so surprised that he’s doing all of this. I just feel like, “You should have listened when he was making all these statements, and showing us what a president is not supposed to do, and how a president shouldn’t act.” So, I just feel like it’s disappointing for everybody, because this older generation basically determined our future for us. We didn’t get to choose it.

April: It’s extremely disappointing, because we’re watching our country degrade.

JR: So in the face of this huge change that has occurred, and that is making the lives of you and your classmates and people in your community more vulnerable, what can you do? Do you have a role to play in speaking out and pushing back, and if so, what is that role?

Jackie: I think this is a time where people are asking, “What do we do? What do we do? Like, what can we do?” So, this is the part where we should all inform them that it’s going to be okay. We have rights. We can all get together. The US has a legacy of so many social movements, and within those movements, you have strong people who said, “This is what we do. We have to join together.” So, this is where this program comes into play. We’re here to inform people, and that is when and how we fight back. We have rights, and when we join together, we’re not all doing our own thing and just being scared, and that’s when we can make an actual change, by sticking together.

April: Through unity, we can force them to listen to us.

Tayah: I feel like this program was made for a reason, so that through events like this, this way of coming together can help us and help show how America really is towards people of color, and all who are oppressed.

Omar: I just think we need leaders, to be honest.

JR: What do you want from leaders, at this point?

Jackie: Anyone can be a leader.

Omar: I feel like we can be leaders. Anyone can be a leader, but Mr. L has given us the confidence to speak out and gain leadership skills, to speak up in front of all these people, and I feel like our peers need a leader. They can’t speak for themselves. We can speak for them, and hopefully they can exponentially grow this confidence within themselves to become leaders as well.

JR: Jackie said something before that seemed important that I’d like to return to: you said, “We can learn from other people before, who have come together and organized in the face of difficult times.” What are some examples that you lean on or think about when you think about taking action today?

Jackie: A lot of people have started or participated in movements, like Martin Luther King, Jr. He told people in his community, “Hey, let’s join in this church. Let’s all talk about the inequalities that we’re facing. Let’s peacefully talk to these people and tell them that we deserve rights.” And people started joining. First, people were scared, yes. “Oh, I don’t know if we should really do this. Will it affect us?” More people started joining. People started seeing a change, “Yes, we’re being heard now.” More and more, and thousands of people started joining this.

Now, we see the Black Lives Matter movement. Before that it was the Black Panthers. People joined because it wasn’t just two or three people facing Congress; it’s a whole race of people that are being treated unfairly. Once you’ve joined together, there’s nothing that can stop you. From all of those leaders and movements, we have rights and if you think about how we were treated earlier and how we’re treated now, there is a big, big difference.

Tayah: History always finds its way to repeat itself. I mean, this stuff isn’t new. It’s always there. It’s not new. We’re still fighting it. I just feel like people really need to wake up and realize that this is not a game. This is life that we’re talking about. This can affect people of color, anybody that is oppressed. In politics, if you’re not a white male, you’re basically inferior. That’s why people need to wake up.

JR: Do you feel like your classmates need to wake up?

Multiple voices: Yes.

JR: So what leads to people being “woke” in that sense?

Omar: Realizing that they’re not in a dream, basically. That things are bad, and that our world is very harsh and we’re going to be punished if we don’t do anything.

Jackie: I feel like a lot of our classmates, they’re very different from us and they have a different mindset. Like, Mr. L had us doing this project, and half of the class was saying some of Booker T. Washington’s policies, and the other half was W.E.B. Du Bois, and basically, W.E.B. Du Bois said, “We must come together and we must tell these people that we have rights,” while Booker T. Washington said, “We must cast down our buckets and do it ourselves.” I feel like both of them had their certain truths, but how did Booker T. Washington want to cast down his bucket when he hadn’t received any rights? How can you start something if you don’t have anything to start with? First we must join together and we must tell people that we do have these rights.

Omar: Many of our classmates live in the moment, and they don’t really think about their future. They don’t necessarily want to think about actually taking a stand and fighting back.

Jackie: We see the shootings with the police, and for a week, it’ll be all on social media. Twitter, Instagram, everything. But when it comes to the actual moment of fighting for it, it’s like, it’s done. And it’s a cycle—someone dies and then we post it for a week, and yes, it’s inequality, it’s inequality, and then it just dies off. And then it comes, another killing. And it’s just the same, same cycle. And I need the students in my class to start realizing that this has to end. How many more people have to die so we can actually wake up and fight back?

JR: If you think about teachers and other adults—not just at this school, but throughout the country—what messages do you want to send them about how they can support young people? How can teachers support elementary students, too? How can they build the sorts of relationships that will support young people’s development into these civic and anti-racist actors that you all have become?

Jackie: I think it’s very important to start from a young age. Teachers must talk to kids that are troubled right now, the ones that aren’t doing so good, because they might be going through something else. And they need to start at an early age telling kids, “I’m here for you. If you ever need something, I’ll be here for you.” Just someone to have support from, so they always know there’s someone to tell your problems to, and there’s a way to fix them. Kids keep bottling these things up, and they think, “Oh, if something’s a problem, I just keep it to myself and that’s it.” Like, “It’s no one else’s problem, it’s just my problem,” while millions of other kids are probably going through the same problem as well.

April: Keeping things under your skin like that makes it fester, and you develop so many different insecurities as a result of what you’re trying to keep under wraps. So, having an adult to teach us and help us understand that we’re not alone, and that we have people who can help us, that would help a lot.

Tayah: I feel like listening to the younger generation would benefit them a lot as well, because they don’t listen to us at all. They think that because we’re kids, we don’t know a lot. We know a lot, and we’re more willing sometimes to go out and do more than the older generation will. I just feel like they need to listen to us, and they need to really understand where we’re coming from.

Jackie: Our ancestors said, “We want equal schools. We want education for our kids.” Okay, they said, “Here’s education.” Now, since we have the right to an education, we’re still being oppressed by police officers coming onto the campus. We still have people watching us and we don’t have enough people supporting us or telling us, “You guys will make it to college. Here’s what you need to go to college.” It’s more like, “Oh, here are police officers to watch you.”

Tayah: Well, they should stop pushing the concept of college on everybody, because college is not for everybody. People don’t want to go to college. So, if they were to stop pushing college on us like that’s the only way to be successful … there’s other paths of success that don’t include going to college.

Roseary: I feel like adults keep on treating us like children, so some kids just stay in that mentality because of the way that adults act towards them. Adults need to understand that we’re becoming adults as well.

JR: So, sometimes adults think that they’re listening, but they’re not listening in the way Tayah was saying before, where they are really grasping what you’re saying. And I often am guilty myself, where I think I’ve heard, but I really haven’t heard. So, what do you think the adults and educators in your lives need to do so that they really listen?

Tayah: Empathize.

Roseary: I think they need to be more open-minded. I have a teacher who was telling us that he and his friends, they were having a conversation about, what’s the point of money? He told us that he and his friends came to the conclusion that money is just to get girls. And that really bothered me, because I was like, “Wait, that’s really sexist.” He was basically telling the girls, “You just care about money.” And it’s not about that. We want more. It’s not even like we want money; we want to be respected.

JR: I’m glad you brought this up, because I want to ask you a question about respect. So, do you feel like teachers show respect to you? How do you know if you’re being respected?

Tayah: Well, Mr. L would be an example. Throughout every one of our meetings, he’s always stayed quiet and always let the students speak. I’ve never really had a teacher do that. And the fact that he doesn’t agree with one person’s opinion, but lets everybody speak for himself or herself is really important. That’s what I feel like respect is. I mean, there is other forms of respect, but letting somebody speak and letting somebody have a platform when they’re not used to having that is amazing.

April: Even asking me for my opinion, for starters, and you know when they’re actually listening to you when the next day, they actually do what you say. Sometimes I’ll mention to Mr. L that I understand better through visuals, and the next day he would start drawing on the board. I’m just sitting there thinking, “Wow, you can’t draw.”

JR: But he heard you, even if he can’t draw. He heard you.

April: Even if he can’t draw, he tried. It’s like, okay. Got props for that.

JR: Here’s my last question, which I’ve been asking different adults. I’ve asked this of civil rights attorneys, leaders of community organizations, and other professors. In this moment, when so many challenges are being faced—some of which have been around for a long time, some of which are new—what keeps you hopeful? What keeps you feeling like positive change towards justice is possible?

Jackie: Like I said earlier, with all of the current movements, including what we’re doing right now. Kids are joining things like Student Deserve, and they’re joining other programs in other schools, and we’re all united in saying, “Hey, we want to make this change.” So, the fact that I see other people having similar opinions and going through the same things as me, it gives me so much hope, because I know we’re gonna stay united.

April: What makes me most hopeful is knowing that we don’t serve the government; the government serves us. So, knowing that, if we just fight against it, then there’s no way that we can be stopped. They have to listen to us.

Omar: What gives me hope is that I know one day I’m going to be in a government position, and I might have that voice that I don’t have now and do things that I can’t do now. I already have that understanding of what kids go through, so, I can carry that forward from now on.

Roseary: What makes me hopeful is that we can encourage our peers to stop being lazy and actually do something, because they already have that mindset. It’s just that they’re lazy, so I feel like we just need to motivate them to get out and do something about it.

Tayah: I just feel like what makes me hopeful is what Jackie said. Seeing that people know what I’m going through, that they have the same struggles as me, and that they’re empowered to make a change. That’s one of the biggest things that keeps me hopeful, because I want my little brother to grow up in a society where he doesn’t have to get judged, and he doesn’t have to walk home and get searched by police, or handcuffed. I just want a better future for my brothers, and also for my mother, too. So, I think that’s what’s keeping me hopeful.

April: Something I’ve always found hopeful is looking around at the other students and just thinking about what they could do in the future: those who could possibly be our next president, those who will be my future doctor, or somebody who can help if I have kids. Like, somebody who can be like my pediatrician and things like that.

JR: Well, I look across the table here, and I see an amazing future, so you all have made me very hopeful this afternoon, and I really appreciate you spending the time. Did I miss anything that you want to say before I shut off?

Jackie: I think maybe one thing. I think we shouldn’t be too hard on all teachers, ’cause like, Mr. L and Ms. H, those are just two teachers in one school. I want to say thank you to all the other teachers that are doing the same–those who are helping students who are in need of help. And, for people to wake up, and for the parents out there to listen to their children and actually, like, listen to them.


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