Safety, Justice, Equity, & Our Work in School-Based Health

By Serena Clayton

This post originally appeared on the Voices for Health Equity blog.

On November 4, 2015, I attended “Smart on Safety,” an invitational summit to examine how California can reform the criminal justice system and transform communities to prioritize prevention over punishment.

As Adam Kruggel, Director of Organizing for PICO California, stated, “mass incarceration creates a legitimacy crisis for some of our most deeply held values – that everyone has a right to be a human being.” Harsh sentences, three strikes, mandatory minimums, racial profiling, gang injunctions, and transfer of juveniles to adult courts have demonized poor black and brown males as less deserving “others” – predators who are beyond redemption.

Anyone who works in marginalized communities knows the toll that these policies take on the health and life prospects of their teen patients. Although one would hope that the appalling scene in South Carolina is not the norm, it has been well documented that black students are three times more likely to be suspended than white students. Suspension is a gateway to dropout, economic instability, crime and incarceration. And we don’t need to look only at teens to see how “tough on crime” affects children’s health. Tamir Rice, a 12 year old who was playing with a toy gun in a park, is dead. The children of Eric Gardner and Walter Scott are fatherless. Approximately 2.7 million children have a parent in prison – a vastly disproportionate number of whom are poor and black. Millions more children experience post-traumatic stress disorder from extended exposure to violent encounters between citizens and law enforcement in their communities.

Speakers at Smart on Safety celebrated the one year anniversary of the passage of Prop 47, a huge step forward in turning the tide on mass incarceration. That this victory took place in California was significant. California has been among the states with the dubious distinction of leading the nation in mass incarceration. Prop 47 changed nine felonies to misdemeanors and gave thousands of low level offenders the opportunity to be resentenced, released, and have felonies wiped off their records. With this law, California takes on a new role as a leader in the national outcry against punitive policing and correctional policies that demonize communities of color.

As a professional from the worlds of health and education, I often felt like a fish out of water at this gathering of activists for social justice, racial equality, and criminal justice reform. But I appreciated the opportunity to attend and understand how our work in school-based health connects with this broader movement.

At this meeting schools were mentioned frequently as a key element in reversing our priorities so that we invest in prevention rather than in punishment. We heard calls for increased school funding, improved school climate, changes in school discipline, reduced school policing, and improved mental health services.

Jeff Rosen, Santa Clara’s district attorney, pointed out that many of today’s offenders were victims earlier in their lives. If we did a better job of attending to the needs of victims, might we have fewer offenders down the line? What school experiences would help children and families who have been victims of violence heal, stay engaged in school, and graduate?

School-based health centers have a critical role to play in this picture. They are part of a movement to transform education to encompass the support, the environment, and the services that students need to enable them to stay in class and concentrate on learning. For many students this includes approaches that address the trauma they experience as victims or witnesses to violence. I am proud that we are working with school-based health centers in Oakland and West Contra Costa specifically on this issue and hope that we can find more ways to strengthen the role of school-based health in promoting safety and justice.

Serena Clayton is the Executive Director of the California School-Based Health Alliance.

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