When Johnny Spingola describes an encounter with a school resource officer, or SRO, at his high school last year, his story begins with a school vending machine.
“I was thirsty,” says Spingola, now 17. “I had just bought a juice and accidentally left it outside. When I went to get my drink, the SRO told me no.” Spingola says he ignored the officer and went to get his drink. When he did, the officer’s attitude shifted – he was angry. Hoping to find a school staff member to de-escalate the situation, Spingola visited the school’s main office. When he found the room empty, he headed toward his next class. Back in the hallway, Spingola says, he encountered the same officer again. This time, the officer tackled Spingola and held him to the ground. According to Spingola, the officer did not release the sophomore until the assistant principal was called to the scene. “It was a wild situation, and one that didn’t need to happen,” Spingola says.
The incident left Spingola shaken. For him, and for many students, the presence of police left him feeling criminalized rather than protected. That’s why LIT, Leaders Igniting Transformation, a nonprofit focused on organizing students around issues of racial injustice and in- equity inside Milwaukee Public Schools, was formed. At the heart of LIT’s mission: Overhauling MPS’s discipline measures which have fallen disproportionately on disadvantaged students, and removing SROs, metal detectors, barred windows and X-ray machines.
According to “Youth Power Agenda,” a 30-page report published by LIT and the Center for Popular Democracy in 2018, a 2017 federal investigation in MPS found that over the course of two years, Black students, who make up only 53% of the MPS student body, received 80% of suspensions across the school district. Similarly, students with disabilities, who accounted for only 20% of total enrollment, were involved in 91% of in-school restraints and seclusions.
Spingola first encountered these figures when he attended a LIT meeting just a couple months after his run-in with an SRO. “It really made me open my eyes to a lot of things,” he says. “And finding people who actually listen and have similar experiences was like a breath of fresh air. LIT gave me a platform, and now I can speak up on things and push for change.”
The report was LIT’s clarion call for change, but it wasn’t always well-received. “When we first launched our Youth Power Agenda, a lot of people thought we were crazy,” says Cendi Trujillo Tena, LIT’s high school organizing director who supervises programs across 12 Milwaukee public schools. “We were asking for metal detectors to be removed and for divestment from school policing. There were a lot of people, even in the progressive community, who didn’t support us. It felt kind of lonely in a way.”
The lack of support, however, did not deter Tena and her colleagues. Instead, they turned their attention to the 2019 Milwaukee School Board election, hoping to get both new candidates and incumbents to endorse their agenda. In the months following, as the new School Board prepared to vote on the annual MPS budget, Tena, with the help of LIT’s youth organizers, doubled down on their cause. They held several “mic checks” – disruptions – at a series of budget hearings. The goal, says Tena, was to allow students to share their experiences with SROs and hold board members to their promise to divest from policing in schools. “A lot of people were upset by that,” says Tena, who explains that the organization’s confrontational methods didn’t go over well with several board members or the MPS superintendent. “But it led to a board member submitting a motion to divest $600,000 from the policing budget and reinvest it into mental health counselors.” That motion passed.
Later that year, when the School Board proposed a referendum that would raise property taxes in order to generate an additional $87 million for MPS schools, LIT got to work. “That was our biggest campaign,” says Tena. “We had a canvassing program, mic checks, community meetings, and we made over 25,000 calls.” Last April, the referendum passed in a landslide with 78% of Milwaukeeans voting in its favor.
Though each campaign required a different approach – the onset of the pandemic meant shifting a huge amount of LIT’s advocacy work online – Tena and her colleagues made sure that young people remained at the center. “Our members are really the experts,” says Tena. “We work with students who are closest to the issues, which means they are also closest to the solutions. They are the ones helping us figure out what to prioritize.”
That’s why, as the MPS budget vote approached last spring, LIT’s work around removing police from public schools came back into focus. “We discussed ending the remaining contracts between MPD and MPS,” says Tena, “and this time we had allies, but they were hesitant.”
That changed when, on May 25, news of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer ignited protests and riots in 140 cities across the United States. The thousands who took to the streets demanded large, systemic changes including divesting from police departments and removing police from schools. As a result, Minneapolis Public Schools voted to end their contract with the city police department. “When that happened, our allies on the board reached out and said, ‘OK, maybe it’s time,’” says Tena. “It was bittersweet. It’s unfortunate that the death of George Floyd is what triggered this kind of change.”
“A lot of people were upset by [the MPS board meeting disruptions], but it led to a board member submitting a motion to divest $600,000 from the policing budget and reinvest it into mental health counselors.”
– CENDI TRUJILLO TENA, LIT’S HIGH SCHOOL ORGANIZING DIRECTOR
Three weeks later, the day before the board was scheduled to vote on the new MPS annual budget, LIT held a rally outside MPS central offices. Standing outside the low-slung building, a crowd of more than 500 people held up hand-painted signs and chanted refrains like “Get MPD out of MPS.” At the front of the group, Johnny Spingola, clad in a light gray LIT sweatshirt, stood with a megaphone in hand. “My message was to my school and to all schools with SROs,” recalls Spingola. “I said, ‘When you have police in schools, you’re only hurting your students. And to those who want to keep SROs in schools, that just shows us that you’re racist and that you are here to see us fail.’”
On June 18, the Milwaukee School Board approved a $1.2 billion budget and unanimously voted to end all remaining contracts between public schools and the city police department. That outcome, says board member Tony Baez, would not have been possible without a progressive board. “Members of the board were clear that the time has come to respond to this national call for the demilitarization of our schools,” says Baez, a longtime activist himself. “LIT presented an opportunity to really think about how MPS’ contracts with the police department were becoming austere and anti-student.”
These days, Tena and her fellow LIT members are working to ensure MPS invests in restorative practices, including hiring more social workers, introducing job programs and providing culturally responsive training for educators. Baez, too, is pushing for more progressive practices in schools. Last fall, he proposed a motion to end all suspensions for students below fifth grade. The motion passed unanimously.
While Spingola celebrates each win as it comes, he knows the work is not over. “What I want to see is a system where all people are treated fairly and equitably,” says the high school junior, “a system where Black and brown people are no longer suffering.”