For as long as I can remember, a squad car with the bold, black-and-yellow word “POLICE” sat outside my living-room window. Growing up on the East Side of St. Paul, I could always see that car parked in front of the public high school I lived next to. No matter what I was doing — watching cartoons, doing the dishes, raking leaves — that squad car was always in my line of vision.
I never questioned it. In my mind, it was there because it had to be.
And then I saw what the cops in those cars actually did.
Whenever a fight broke out between high school students, a security guard or police officer would run to the scene, pepper-spray the kids, tackle them, handcuff them and pop them in a squad car.
For most of my friends and me, this wasn’t out of the ordinary. It was our normal.
A recent bill before the Minnesota Legislature, SF 2323, would have made the problem worse. Not only would it have automatically expelled a student for assaulting a teacher, it also would have expelled students who exhibited “an intent to cause fear.” This vagueness and level of discretion was perfectly suited to fit the rhetoric surrounding so many black and brown students who are perceived as violent simply because of centuries-old stereotypes.
Whether it’s the New Deal laws of the 1930s or the war on drugs policies of the Reagan and Clinton administrations, it’s painfully obvious that laws can be dangerously discriminatory without the use of explicit racial language.
While the original expulsion bill was voted down, there are clauses in the House and Senate omnibus bills that focus solely on removing students from classrooms. They’re using the same definition of “assault,” which means they’ll target those same students of color if the law is put into effect.
Minnesota has to move in a completely different direction, setting an example for effective restorative justice in the U.S.
The Legislature now has the opportunity to vote on a different bill — SF 2898, the Student Inclusion and Engagement Act, or SIEA.
This bill focuses on implementing restorative-justice practices, which have proved to be an effective alternative to zero-tolerance policies and removing students from the classroom.
Voting for this bill could not only be a step in the right direction for our state, but also would set an example for the rest of the country. By setting up restorative-justice policies in our schools, we could work toward what Morehouse College Prof. Marc Lamont Hill has called “imagining a world that is not yet.”
Growing up, I had never thought of a world where I didn’t see a police car outside my school or an officer walking around my hallways. I had never imagined a world where students get help for their problems instead of being pushed headfirst into a Crown Vic.
These ideas were normalized in my mind. I never questioned that. I never “imagined a world that is not yet,” a world where our students, particularly our black and brown students — students like me — aren’t criminalized for behaviors and actions that are only perceived as violent.
The Student Inclusion and Engagement Act is a step toward such a world. I hope Minnesota takes that step — and that the rest of the country follows.
Rogelio Salinas, 18, is a senior in the public schools and a board member of the Minnesota Alliance With Youth, which is working to raise high school graduation rates with support from the GradNation State Activation initiative, a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson.