For years, Milwaukee has slashed funding for essential social services and doubled down on incarceration and policing. As a result, the city’s racial disparities have widened — it is now the third worst city in the country for Black Americans to live.

Perhaps nowhere is the trend more evident than Milwaukee’s Public Schools, which today are marked by high rates of suspension and dropout. During the 2015-2016 school year, Black students accounted for 80 percent of the 10,267 students suspended by MPS, despite being only 53 percent of the student body.  

That’s why we welcomed the news that MPS must reform its school discipline policies pursuant to an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. The agreement requires MPS to come into compliance with federal civil rights laws, following an investigation into the district’s disproportionate use of suspensions against Black students.

The agreement provides an opportunity for Milwaukee to end its failed policies and become a national model for safe, inclusive schools.

But it’s off to a rocky start.

Last week, the district faced the resolution agreement’s first deadline — a requirement to hold parent meetings about the disciplinary policies.

It appears they failed to do so.

There has been no mention of the meetings on MPS or school board’s website, parents haven’t heard about them, and calls to MPS inquiring about them have gone unreturned.

Starting this process with such a lack of transparency and vigor calls to question their dedication to creating safe environments for our children and complying with federal civil rights laws.  

The need for change is clear. The punitive disciplinary policies Milwaukee has invested in fail to make schools safe and have lasting consequences throughout the city.

A national study from The Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that, conservatively, students who get suspended are 15 percent less likely to graduate than their peers who haven’t been suspended. The same study calculated the estimated social impact of each student who does not graduate to be $527,695, including $163,340 in lost tax revenue.

Suspensions also fuel a school-to-prison pipeline, leading to higher incarceration rates for Black and Brown youth. In 2017, 70 percent of youth in Wisconsin’s juvenile correctional facilities were Black. In 2015, only about 10 percent of Wisconsin’s total youth population was Black.

Despite the clear harm of the school-to-prison pipeline, Milwaukee perpetuates its existence.

Milwaukee spends a greater fraction of its general fund on policing than many other major cities. A 2017 report from the Center for Popular Democracy, Law for Black Lives, and Black Youth Project 100, compared ten other cities and found that they devoted 25 to 40 percent of their general fund expenditures to policing — Milwaukee spent 47 percent, or nearly $300 million.

Fortunately, young people around the city, with the help of Leaders Igniting Transformation, have a blueprint to encourage safe, and nurturing schools and transform MPS’s disciplinary policies. They seek to divest from criminalization by removing police officers and metal detectors from schools, ending arrests for low-level offenses and misdemeanors, severely limiting long-term suspensions, ending suspensions for minor infractions, and including youth peers in disciplinary hearings. In addition to these divestments, young people are calling for investments in schoolwide trauma-informed training, guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologist, and reducing classroom sizes, as well as opportunities for students to thrive through a universal jobs program and expanded access to college.

The federal agreement calls for a process of community input throughout the next four months. If Milwaukee intends to make meaningful change, it must listen to the experts — young people.

This is a moment for MPS leaders to decide which side of history they will be on: maintain the racially biased status quo or seize this historic moment to become a school system that values Black lives? As the district embarks on this radical transformation, it must center the experiences and expertise of young people to develop policies that can provide young people the freedom to thrive.

Dakota Hall is the executive director of Leaders Igniting Transformation.

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