The Total Child

A VOYCE on the School-to-Prison Pipeline

(School Discipline , Student Support Services) Permanent link

A guest post by Maria Degillo, VOYCE coordinator at the Voices Of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE)  

My friend, Antonio (Tonii) Maggitt, is a young person who has personally been affected by the large dependency that schools have on the police in our schools. In Chicago and other school districts the drive to keep students and the schools safe has resulted in bad consequences in my experience for fellow Black, Latino, and students with disabilities across the state.

Last month, I was so proud of Tonii for finally graduating from his CPS (Chicago Public Schools) school despite the challenges he personally faced in dealing with police over the years. Throughout his elementary and high school years, Tonii had family problems which lead to him moving around between his mother and his grandmother. He felt like no one wanted to take responsibility for him. This led to him closing himself off from others all while he kept his thoughts and feelings to himself. The only place where he was comfortable enough to express himself was at his school. One day in 8th grade he was excused by his teacher to go talk to a counselor, and on his walk through the hall a police officer at the school assumed that he was cutting class and proceeded to grab him. Tonii pulled away, then the officer rushed to grab him again and a physical altercation broke out between the two. This led to his arrest.

What the police officer did not know is that Tonii was suffering from severe depression and was clinically diagnosed because of his family situation. He was trying to seek help but instead was targeted and the outcome was the loss of school for Tonii, a criminal record, and a new perspective of how Tonii came to view police in schools. After his second arrest in high school for a disruption in the hall, Tonii joined Voices of Youth in Chicago Education(VOYCE) to try to have his story be told. VOYCE was founded by students to have their voice be told, create youth led solutions to discipline, and end the school to prison pipeline.

I wish I could say that Tonii is the exception to having these type of experiences, where students feel like no one but a police officer is there to handle difficult situations, but that is not the case. Many schools across the state have become overly reliant on law enforcement personnel to handle routine school disciplinary situations. Young people are often criminalized and kicked out of school for minor infractions that could be handled in the school’s disciplinary office. In 2015-2016 school year, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) filed by the Shriver Center uncovered that Ottowa Township High School had 225 school-based arrests, 187 of which were for truancy. Can schools do a better job in addressing behavioral and mental health needs of students to address the root cause of problems without cops? 

A few years ago, VOYCE created a “wishlist” of things we wanted to achieve statewide. This list included:

  1. To create data transparency that would lay out the demographics of who was getting suspended and expelled from their schools. It is also important for this data to be available to the public and have school districts that are on the top 25 percentile to create an improvement plan that would help address the issue;
  2.  To eliminate zero tolerance policies that kick students out of school and increase their chance of falling into the prison system; and
  3.  To diminish the amount of school based arrests on students.

It has been three years and VOYCE has been able to accomplish the first two items on that wishlist. It is the continuing passion and experience of the young people like Tonii and myself that work with VOYCE on ending the school to prison pipeline that has resulted in these changes. It is an absolute injustice that young people are being arrested for getting into verbal arguments, a dispute with another student, or even drawing on a desk. All of these are issues that schools should definitely address, but not through the criminal justice system.

The current model for most school-based misbehaviors is the wrong approach. It is costing taxpayers too much money and costing the lives of our students most in need of an opportunity to get an education. VOYCE believes that we need to invest in our young people by focusing our resources on strategies that address the root cause of the issues. We have a motto that we try to work toward creating a transformative education and lessen the transactional experiences. This is why VOYCE works tirelessly to end the school-to-prison pipeline and uplifting student voice through sensable reforms to the system. We need schools that will provide an education and transform our lives for the better.

Last year hundreds of students have been arrested in schools for minor reasons across our state and thousands across the country. We are young people, we are learning, and we are growing. We need support, we need connections, and we need education. As Tonii once said, “giving up has always been my option, but it has never been my choice.” Students go to school to learn, and that is why VOYCE and the young people who have worked so hard to support the work that we do will not give up until schools handle all students actions with the correct resources. Police should not be handling all issues in the community or in our schools.

The Voices Of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) is a youth-led alliance that is made up of four different community based organizations; Communities United, Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP), Westside Health Authority (WHA), and Mothers Opposed to Violence Everywhere (MOVE). Khadijah Lee is a senior at Prosser Career Academy and is a core student organizer with VOYCE. If you want to know more about VOYCE please contact Maria Degillo, VOYCE coordinator, at