Harvard Educational Review
  1. Willful Defiance

    The Movement to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline

    Mark R. Warren

    New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. 346 pp. $99 (cloth).

    During a meeting in the spring of 2011, activist and community organizing scholar Kavitha Mediratta reportedly saw US Attorney General Eric Holder’s “jaw literally drop” when he heard the findings from a report on school discipline in Texas (86). According to this report, almost 60 percent of students, 75 percent of Black students, and 75 percent of students with special needs had been suspended at least once in middle or high school. Shortly thereafter, the federal Departments of Education and Justice formed a joint Supportive School Discipline Initiative to investigate the state of school discipline across the country. In 2014 the initiative released a federal guidance package that included research on how current school discipline practices discriminated by race and ability and provided resources for how schools could move toward safer, more supportive school discipline. The federal guidance also included studies showing the strong correlations between negative academic outcomes and exclusionary discipline practices like suspensions and expulsions, such as dropping out of school and increased involvement with the criminal justice system—a phenomenon called the school-to-prison pipeline (STPP). During his speech announcing the guidelines, Holder reportedly became the first federal cabinet official to acknowledge the existence of the STPP and commit to combating it. Although the term and the problem were new concerns for the federal administration in the early 2010s, parents, youth, and activists had been fighting the struggle on a local level for decades. In Willful Defiance: The Movement to Dismantle the School-to-Prison Pipeline, sociologist Mark Warren draws on interviews and observations with youth and adult organizers to tell the history of the movement to end the school-to-prison-pipeline, arguing that this movement has important lessons for scholars and activists.

    As a community-engaged scholar, Warren partnered with the Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC), one of the organizations fighting the STPP, to design the study. Over three years and across the United States, Warren conducted interviews with parents, students, activists, advocates, and legislators; observed conferences, marches, school board meetings, and organizing meetings; and analyzed a variety of documents, including school reports and news accounts. In addition to Willful Defiance, Warren produced resource toolkits for community groups and published a non-academic book in 2018 called Lift Us Up! Don’t Push Us Out!, in which youth and parent organizers wrote about their own experiences in the movement. Despite being the more academic of the two books, Willful Defiance is written accessibly, with minimal academic jargon and a strong focus on participant voice and storytelling.

    The first three chapters are geared toward academics. In the first chapter, Warren provides a racial analysis of the history of the STPP, from zero tolerance to police presence in schools. This chapter is foundational to one of the book’s key arguments, that the STPP is a function of white supremacy and therefore only antiracist organizing can combat it. In the second chapter, Warren argues that though scholars of social movements and community organizing often think of community organizing as merely local and social movements as national, the movement to end the STPP operates on local, state, and national levels. Building off that idea, the third chapter traces the national history of the STPP movement, from its initial focus on combating abusive alternative schooling in Mississippi, to campaigns to stop zero-tolerance policies, to national wins.

    In contrast to the first three chapters, which are informative but maintain a scholarly distance, the remainder of the book looks at the cruelty of the STPP and the enormous work necessary to fight it through the stories of the youth and parents most directly harmed by it. Chapters 4, 5, and 6 focus on the history of the movement in Mississippi, Los Angeles, and Chicago, respectively. The depth of Warren’s research pays off in the richness of these chapters, as readers get to know the history of the movement in each place, hear from multiple generations of activists, and learn the unique organizing strategies of various groups, all without losing sight of the people directly impacted. In fact, this book is difficult to read at times because of the unflinching accounts of how school officials brutalize Black and brown children.

    Most impactful is when the organizers tell their own stories and interpret their experiences. For example, Roslyn Broadnax started inviting other parents of color to share their stories in her home, which eventually led to the formation of Community Asset Development Redefining Education (CADRE), a group that pushed the Los Angeles Unified School District to rewrite its exclusionary disciplinary policies. Broadnax describes how her dark-skinned nephew was often the butt of his teacher’s racist jokes about monkeys and gorillas, such as when he was asked, “Did your parents send you with a banana today?” (123). Recounting a similar experience, Chicago youth activist Amina Henderson described being pushed against the wall and choked by a school security guard and how, when she tried to fight back, she was arrested and suspended from school. Amina became part of Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE), a youth-led organization that successfully campaigned for a state bill that banned zero-tolerance policies and promoted restorative justice.

    Warren complements these stories with ample quantitative data to illustrate that they are not isolated incidents but examples of a systemic problem. This blend of quantitative data and personal stories mirrors a political tactic used by the STPP movement activists when trying to persuade policy makers. On the one hand, a percentage or number may seem impersonal until you read about or see the physical harm on a student’s body or grasp parents’ struggle to both advocate for their child and still go to work. On the other hand, hearing one negative story may lead some to think that it’s a case of a bad actor in an otherwise well-intentioned system. Warren’s use of both statistics from activist and government research and firsthand accounts from activists’ daily lived experiences is persuasive.

    In chapters 7 and 8, Warren describes more recent aspects of the movement. Chapter 7 focuses on newer, less formal community organizing in places like Dayton, Ohio; Richmond, Virginia; and Gwinnett County, Georgia. Chapter 8 looks at how the movement has expanded its focus from just Black boys and zero-tolerance to also include Black girls and gender-nonconforming students, police-free schools, and restorative justice.

    Willful Defiance covers a lot of ground to convincingly provide evidence for Warren’s arguments around what strategies contributed to the policy and organizing victories of the movement to end the STPP and what scholars and activists can learn from those strategies. Warren argues that a core strength of the movement is its leadership by those directly impacted by the STPP. From Los Angeles to Chicago to Georgia, parents and youth organizers identify problems; develop creative solutions; advocate for themselves at local, state, and national levels; and oversee implementation of new policies. Unlike professional advocates, these activists can share both research and their own personal stories to persuade legislators, educators, and justice officials toward change. As mentioned earlier, another strength of the movement is its explicit racial analysis, which was a feature of the movement before such analyses were common in education spaces. The data showed that Black students were disproportionately affected by the STPP, and activists named a white supremacist system as directly responsible. Finally, Warren points to the importance of organizing at multiple levels and how the federal movement to end the STPP was a “nationalizing” of the local organizing.

    Although Warren doesn’t focus on stories of the tensions within the movement, he does acknowledge several main challenges. For example, while professional advocates have more resources and time to devote to organizing and may be better connected to policy circles, youth and parents who are most impacted may find taking on leadership roles difficult. Also, interracial alliances may balk at Black organizers’ insistence to keep anti-Black racism at the center of analysis and strategy, and LGBTQ youth or youth with disabilities might feel marginalized by unaddressed homophobia, transphobia, or ableism in organizations. Because Warren argues that the leadership of those directly impacted and the racial analysis were key strengths of the movement to end the STPP, I wanted Warren to explore these challenges further. For example, in chapter 3, Warren writes about the disagreements between lawyers and community activists in the DSC over who should lead the development of the organization’s Model Code on Education and Dignity, a resource to guide schools toward more humanizing school discipline. In the end, Warren notes that the DSC agreed to let activists lead the creation of the document but does not provide detail about who made this decision, how this tension was negotiated, or what, if any, negative consequences there were. A deeper exploration of the stories of these tensions would be a useful resource for activists who are likely to face similar challenges.

    That said, Warren’s focus on what worked in the movement is valuable for scholars and activists, and I particularly appreciated the discussion of the importance of “deep organizing” (258) —relationship and capacity building, sustained pressure, political education, learning history, personal and community healing, and more. Once the STPP was given federal recognition in the 2010s, schools across the country began to shift away from zero-tolerance policies and toward restorative justice. But just recognizing these relatively recent national culture and policy shifts ignores the long-term, more localized deep organizing of the movement that was a necessary foundation for larger-scale change. Warren’s analysis of the power of deep organizing in the success of the movement to end the STPP is applicable to other movements that are highly visible during large mobilizing actions or policy victories but whose deep organizing may be ignored, such as the fight for police abolition or the disability justice movement.

    With its insights into the importance of deep organizing and into leadership by the most directly impacted, Willful Defiance is an important history and analysis of a movement that has a profound effect on US schooling, with much to offer both activists and scholars of community organizing and social movements.

    Alyssa Napier
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