Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Cardozo High School. This version has been updated.
The small band of guerrilla photographers spread out in schools across the District, snapping photos of metal detectors, police pat-downs, and scuffles between security guards and students.
The dozen or so teens, who hail from some of the area’s most troubled neighborhoods, are trying to document the kind of school security issues that have taken center stage in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings.
Since the December tragedy, the question of whether schools are safe has gained new urgency, with the Senate weighing $40 million in funding for school security plans and the National Rifle Association — which has called for armed teachers, administrators or guards in every school — releasing recommendations from its experts Tuesday.
But H.D. Woodson High School senior Mike Ruff and other classmates have armed themselves with cameras to make the opposite point. They say that their learning environment has been scarred by relentless security. They say their high schools, among an estimated 10,000 nationwide with police on campus, feel like prisons.
“We want our school to be more like a school,” says Ruff, a shy honor student with a cheeky grin and aspirations to become a University of Florida Gator some day. “Other schools don’t have police officers. So why does our school have to have that?”
They’re hoping to use the photographs to persuade D.C. school officials to start a “restorative justice” program to cut down on the 6,000 students or so who were suspended last school year, some multiple times.
But in the current climate they may have trouble winning over school administrators such as the principal at Woodson, who says he thinks tight security is crucial to keeping kids safe.
“You shouldn’t feel like you’re going to jail,” says Richard Jackson, the principal, “but there are certain systemic things already we have to do. . . . We’re always looking at the balance between safety and just violating civil liberties. The adults want us to do a lot more than we do, and the kids are saying, ‘Like, you know, don’t treat us all as if we’re going to do something.’ ”
One month after Newtown, Ruff and about a half-dozen classmates gather in a stuffy classroom on the third floor of the Thurgood Marshall Center in Shaw. The Critical Exposure program, founded in 2004, teaches students to advocate for change by giving them cameras to document disparities in their urban neighborhoods.
In the past, students have gone into Wilson High School in affluent Northwest Washington and photographed the shiny bathrooms to compare them with the run-down facilities at Roosevelt High School in Petworth. One snapped a shot of a teacher sleeping in class. And it took just a few of their compelling images of an empty room with boxes of books to help persuade the school system to allocate $18,000 for a new library for Washington Metropolitan High School in LeDroit Park, they say.
This year, the kids toss ideas around and decide to consider the “school-to-prison pipeline,” the term for tough discipline practices that critics say take students out of schools — through suspension, expulsion or arrest — and funnel them directly into the criminal justice system.
Before Newtown, zero tolerance was under attack. The Justice Department filed a lawsuit last fall in Mississippi saying that authorities in Meridian unfairly sent students of color to a juvenile detention facility for minor offenses such as violating the dress code or being rude to teachers. And there was a high-profile hearing on Capitol Hill, where advocates decried zero-tolerance policies in which, as Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) put it, “a schoolyard fight that used to warrant a visit to the principal’s office can now lead to a trip to the booking station and a judge.”
That was Dec. 12.
Two days later, Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School carrying a loaded Bushmaster .223-caliber XM-15 rifle and three other 30-round magazines.
In the wake of the mass shooting, which left 26 people at the school dead, including 20 children, the national mood shifted dramatically.
As calls for heightened school security spread, the Critical Exposure kids interviewed a half-dozen local advocates, earnestly writing down their views on big dry-erase board: How armed guards increase the number of student arrests. How zero-tolerance policies unfairly target minorities. How kids who are suspended are more likely to end up in trouble with the law later in their lives.
In the end, they decided it was precisely the right moment to embrace such alternatives to suspension as restorative justice, which uses administrators or peers to mete out in-school sanctions. The practice is permitted but not generally used in D.C. public schools, a spokesman said. But such programs have helped cut suspension rates in other cities, such as Baltimore.
They dubbed their campaign “Homework Not Handcuffs.”
One day after school, Ruff and his best friend, Deante’ Spillman, grab their Canon cameras and head outside to take photos in front of Woodson.
As Ruff moves around the front steps, angling for a better shot, a skinny classmate in a ball cap approaches.
“Why the f--- you takin’ pictures of us?” he asks. Then louder, “Why the f--- you takin’ pictures of us?”
In Ruff’s younger days, when he got mediocre grades and “literally did not care,” he might have said something, fought back. But he and Spillman just give each other a sideways glance and walk away with studied calm.
“Guess that’s not going to work,” Ruff says once they are at a safe remove. The two dissolve into laughter.
Ruff, who grew up mostly in Northeast, said he is used to how things can go wrong fast. One girl stabbed another just off school grounds recently. The other day, he and his brother had to skirt a smear of blood on the pavement on their way to the gas station for a snack.
“Most of the males in my family are locked up, in jail or deceased,” says Ruff’s mother, Alicia Wells, a medical assistant. Ruff’s uncle was shot to death by D.C. police; his father served jail time on burglary charges. “I always wanted more for them.”
Ruff eventually found more through a mentoring program and through Critical Exposure. He raised his grade-point average from 2.4 in 10th grade to 3.73 this year and won two scholarships worth a total of $60,000.
In many ways, he’s found a haven at Woodson. He and Spillman hang out in the guidance center on breaks. Everybody in school seems to know him; from the janitor to fellow students to the administrative assistant, who puts her hand over her heart at the mention of his name. When he holds the door for one of the teachers, he says: “I’m just trying to be different. Not different for me, but different from the neighborhood.”
But the intense security of the place still chafes at him. The way he has to remove his belt as he goes through the metal detector, “like you’re going to visit somebody.” The way students are prohibited from using the school’s central staircase, which the principal says is done to protect them from potentially dangerous visitors coming in the main entrance. And the fence, designed to keep vandals out, still grates on him.
“Why is it even there?” he gripes. “It serves no purpose.”
As time goes on, the students begin compiling photographs and spend hours after school analyzing them in slide shows. There’s Ruff’s photograph of the black sweep of the fence and a close-up of a forbidding lock. Samera Paz, a Cardozo High School senior, took a photo of a young man’s ankle, wrapped with an electronic-monitoring device next to an old-timey composition book.
Sean Woodland, 18, whom everybody calls Lucky, snapped a photo of a student and police officer arguing near his school and others going the security line at Luke C. Moore Academy in the District.
He wanted to capture the stifling atmosphere. He feels it’s different from the open feeling at Old Mill High School in Anne Arundel County, which he also attended.
“Oh my God, it’s a big difference,” says Woodland. “I don’t know where to start. . . . They don’t have no metal detectors. We didn’t have to wear uniforms. We were treated respectfully there. It was like ‘High School Musical.’ ”
Even the pizza tasted better.
But now the physical landscape at suburban schools may edge closer to that at urban schools. In the District, all but two high schools and middle schools have metal detectors. Hardy Middle School in Northwest and the School Without Walls Senior High School in Foggy Bottom do not. All D.C. high schools and some middle schools have campus police, known as school resource officers.
Prince George’s County is considering an $8 million proposal to create a school police force, along with adding electronic-controlled access and panic buttons in the main office of each school. Prince William County wants to add 15 school resource officers, and Montgomery County wants to double the number of school resource officers. Even tiny Dumfries voted to hire a police officer for its one elementary school.
This week, the NRA released details of its National School Shield Report, calling for armed guards in every school that can afford them and firearms training to arm staffers in smaller, rural districts that can’t.
“Children go to school for a sense or safety and security and it’s not any different than getting on an airplane and knowing there’s a federal air marshal there or going to the mall and seeing a mall security guard,” said Asa Hutchinson, the former Republican congressman from Arkansas who oversaw the effort for the NRA. “You don’t see children running from a mall believing this is an uncomfortable environment.”
After school one day recently, the students gather in front of the Capitol at a rally organized by a national group called Dignity in Schools, hoping to call attention to school safety policies they think are harmful.
Paz waves a homemade sign in the cold March wind with two small circles cut out of notebook paper to represent handcuffs. When one of the speakers cries into the loudspeaker, “Cops out of schools! That’s what we want!” everybody cheers.
Ruff and Spillman arrive late, taking a long transit ride to get there. After all that effort, Ruff is disappointed by the low turnout — just about 30 people — hardly the massive demonstration he had been expecting.
But, as the group moves up Pennsylvania Avenue chanting “College prep, not prison prep,” Ruff says he thinks their Critical Exposure campaign will be successful.
Then he breaks off to take pictures of classmates marching, still chanting loudly, through downtown. A bystander catcalls, “That’s the wrong issue!”
Finally, they gather in a circle in Lafayette Square, each picking up a flickering candle and a photograph of students who were victims of gun violence. The sun disappears behind the White House. They are quieter now but still hoping somebody can hear them.
Alice Crites and Eddy Palanzo contributed to this report.