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Sacrifice the Status Quo, So Families Don’t Have to Sacrifice for Education

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Photo of Sabrina Bernadel
Photo of Sabrina Bernadel

By Sabrina Bernadel, 2020 Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Danaher Corporation. Sabrina is hosted by the National Women’s Law Center.

Even though all students have a right to an equal educational opportunity, not all students are afforded equal access to that right. I witnessed this reality early in life. For years my family moved around quite a bit, and it wasn’t until I was older that I realized education played a large role in those decisions. Because my local public schools lacked resources to support all students, my parents were forced to sacrifice basic needs, like stable housing, so they could afford schools that would provide high-quality education to me and my brothers. My experience drives me to work toward an education system that no longer forces families to make such sacrifices.

My experience drives me to work toward an education system that no longer forces families to make such sacrifices.

Thousands of families across the country face similar barriers to access to high-quality education, especially when their children are pushed out of local or affordable schools because of who they are. Students—Black girls, particularly—are often pushed out of school through discipline policies rooted in racism and sexism. As an Equal Justice Works Fellow at the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC), I’m working to ensure all students have equal access to education by helping schools and policymakers center Black girls in discussions about school safety, highlighting the race- and gender-based harms of school-based police, and advocating for police-free schools that better support girls of color.

Through my project, I engage in federal and state policy advocacy, working with members of Congress to edit legislative text on school discipline to be more inclusive and to eliminate the role of police in schools. I also advocate directly to state lawmakers, by writing support letters to state legislatures asking them to reallocate school policing funds to mental health services and other student supports. Currently, I am developing a telephone helpline service that will allow me and other volunteer attorneys to provide legal assistance and know-your-rights information to students and families who have experienced discrimination in school discipline or interactions with school police.

For Black girls in this country, school was not safe even before the pandemic—and although the pandemic has changed the educational landscape in the United States, it has not changed how bias influences the way educators and school police discipline Black girls. In July 2020, a Black fifteen-year-old girl in Michigan was sent to a juvenile detention center at the height of the pandemic’s first wave for violating her parole because she didn’t submit schoolwork or get up on time for school. In January 2021, an armed school police officer showed up at a young Black girl’s home in Missouri to confront her about a failing grade in her virtual ceramics class. Even in some of the few schools that went back to in-person learning in early 2021, police violence against Black girls persisted, as demonstrated in the viral videos of two teenage girls who were knocked unconscious and tased by a school police officer in their high schools.

For Black girls in this country, school was not safe even before the pandemic—and although the pandemic has changed the educational landscape in the United States, it has not changed how bias influences the way educators and school police discipline Black girls.

As students return to in-person learning this fall, they need and deserve more than the status quo. This school year, I plan to address the ongoing, discriminatory practices girls of color face, as well as the new challenges caused by the pandemic, by helping girls bring administrative claims to the Department of Education, publishing research on the impact of school police on Black girls, and continuing to push for federal legislation that prioritizes students supports over police. In the coming months, I am eager to work with students, families, and other advocates to emphasize that whether students are learning in person or online, schools should ensure that the most historically marginalized students are safe, included, and afforded an equal access to the education guaranteed to them.

To learn more about Sabrina’s work advocating for educational equity and keeping schools safe for girls of color, visit her Fellow profile..

As students return to in-person learning this fall, they need and deserve more than the status quo.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow