An LA School That’s Breaking the School-to-Prison Pipeline

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Inspired by the principles of restorative justice, Islah Academy in South Los Angeles wants young local black Muslims to feel safe and seen at school.

On an unassuming building on Slauson Avenue in Los Angeles, a sign reads Islah Academy. Inside is a celebration of the students’ Muslim and black identities. Posters of Nipsey Hussle, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali decorate the walls; the shelves are filled with books featuring black lead characters. Sneakers of varying sizes are neatly arranged around the prayer hall, where students sit cross-legged alongside community members to listen to the school’s founder, Imam Jihad Saafir, deliver the weekly Friday sermon .

“Race is an important construct here in America, we cannot separate ourselves from our race. And so we go there with a religious-racial identity,” says Saafir, executive director of the nonprofit. Islah LA.

Islah LA is a downtown community center founded by black Muslims to serve the South Los Angeles area. Founded in 2013, it does this through a food pantry, family counseling, four homes dedicated to providing transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness, and safe places programs for families. Under that umbrella is Islah Academy, a K-8 school that seeks to operate outside of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Zero-tolerance policies in American schools, where students were expelled or suspended and referred to law enforcement, gained traction in the 1980s and 1990s due to harsh legislation such as California’s. The Three Strikes Act, which imposed life imprisonment even for minor offenses on repeat offenders. The punitive policies have continued despite studies showing that a suspended student is less likely to complete school and is more likely to be in prison by age 20. Data shows that these policies have disproportionately affected black and brown students.

While California has sought to reverse these policies in recent years, the effects are still being felt. Blacks make up 6% of California’s population – but 28% of the state’s prison population.

In 2012, when Islah was just an idea, Saafir says the community was “beset by the absence of our young people” when they arrived in high school. Many, he said, would be drawn into the culture of gang activity or end up in prison.

Based on the principles of Restorative Justice in 2013, Saafir says Islah Academy is a refuge from the evils that often exist in the inner city and the damage caused by the pipeline connecting the school to the prison.

“There were a number of educators in our community who were saying, ‘There has to be an alternative to public school,’” recalls Azizah Ali, director and one of the founding members of Islah Academy. A former public school teacher herself, she says there were three main issues the founders hoped to tackle in Islah: student safety, children feeling seen and represented, and young people clinging to their faith. .

“We wanted something that was really restorative and not punitive,” Ali says.

Garland Bush, director of student affairs and founding member, says this isn’t just a theoretical commitment: students and teachers apply these principles in the classroom and on school grounds. If there was an incident on the playground, for example, instead of slapping the student with a suspension and preventing that child from receiving an education, the entire school community of Islah comes together in a circle of restorative justice.

“We allow students to talk about their feelings about the situation and talk about how and where it came from, considering what this child is going through in their home life, the trauma they are going through,” says- she. “And really ask the community, what do you need from this student to make the community whole again.”

The name Islah, in Arabic, means to revive, renew and restore. Students debate the harm that has been done to the school community and the community as a whole, how they can repair the relationship, and what accountability requires. The students themselves create the consequences.

“We had a student who used really bad language towards young girls… and the school community said, you should get up after jummah [prayer services] and make a speech about respecting women,” Ali recalled. At first, the student was embarrassed and resisted, before finally holding himself accountable and doing it. He received a standing ovation after his speech.

“He got so much support,” Ali says.

Instead of punishing the student, Bush finds that this model provides a “platform for deeper learning, it gives a platform for better communication.”

These restorative justice circles are not only used for disciplinary reasons or to resolve behavioral issues, they also serve as a platform to have deeper discussions about what is happening in society. When rapper Nipsey Hussle was murdered on the street in Islah in 2019, the school got together to discuss what happened.

“There was a student, a nice little boy, who brought a knife. He was like, ‘to protect me.’ They didn’t feel safe after that,” Ali says. The school brought in a trauma specialist to help students deal with their feelings.

The school, says Saafir, is “tailor-made for the community”. Topics like incarceration are also discussed in these circles because some students have parents in prison. One student, he recalled, approached the teachers and asked them to write a character reference letter for his incarcerated father in hopes that his father would be released sooner.

“He carries this burden here with him, so we talk to him about this particular topic,” Saafir says.

Another student mentioned that he was angry with his father for not paying child support. A classmate replied, “It’s nothing new,” while another student added, “Neither did my dad.

Saafir used this discussion to talk about forgiveness and understanding. He redirected children to wonder if their fathers might be dealing with a trauma that prevents them from being present in their children’s lives.

“We unbox it, we talk about it, and we move on,” Bush says.

The school-to-prison pipeline is all about gender. Between 2016 and 2017, 3.6% of students in the United States were suspended from school. But the rate for black boys was 12.8%. At the early childhood level (K-3), black boys are 5.6 times more likely to be suspended.

Islah Academy, as Ali is proud to note, offers an alternative to “lots of boys, black boys.” Parents say they prefer Islah because their children aren’t criminalized just because teachers haven’t understood them or their attitudes.

“This whole criminalizing attitude is because either you want to control this child in some way or your ego is hurt and you can’t deal with it,” Bush says. “Or you’re just in a mold of adultifying these kids.”

At Islah, she continues, as educators, teachers strive to be transformative mentors – “someone who can support them on their own ideas of who they want to be.” It even involves disrupting many systems of traditional American schools: no school bells, colorful uniforms in a range of styles for students to choose from.

And students have responded in kind to this model of restorative justice.

“It’s just amazing to see where they are now, to see how far they’ve come,” Bush says of Islah’s graduate students. “We have students who are in college now.” Some former students, she says, call Islah their “home” and their “family.”

Yet the students of Islah themselves cannot see the impact of Islah’s model on their lives. “But we know that, comparing them to our generation,” Saafir notes.

When Saafir was a 12-year-old boy, one day at Eid prayers, he was standing with a group of young men. The men walked around the circle, spouting the names of the gangs they had become affiliated with. “One from Fruit Town, one from 60’s Neighborhood Crips, one from Pirus,” he said.

More recently, one of his childhood friends ended up in prison for murder. Another was killed.

“If there was no Islah Academy, I see this cycle continuing,” Saafir says grimly.

Yusra Farzan is a multimedia journalist who reports on social issues that intersect with race and religion. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Insider, NPR, Teen Vogue, PBS SoCal KCET, Gulf News, and LankaWoman magazine. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Southern California.

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