I’ve spent my entire adult life in education.
In college, I tutored students, taught at summer camps, and worked part-time as a debate teacher at a nearby high school. After graduating, I spent two years traveling the country teaching middle school and high school debate. As a teacher, I saw firsthand the transformative power a quality education can have on a kid’s life.
After deciding to go to law school, I knew I wanted to use my passion for teaching to be a lawyer for the kids the education system leaves behind. I worked at organizations serving students with disabilities, a juvenile defender’s office, and continued teaching whenever I could. I sat in countless seminars working through the complicated questions of what justice for disenfranchised kids might look like.
One constant theme through all my work and studies in education has been the way systems of power criminalize kids, especially Black, brown, and poor children. Which is why when I graduated, I sought an opportunity to fight the criminalization of young people in our education system. And I knew that the best way to truly create change was by being part of a team that wanted to fundamentally rethink policing, not merely reform it.
That is what brought me back to my home state to work alongside the innovative and bold lawyers of Texas Civil Rights Project’s Criminal Injustice team. Through their work fighting the for-profit forces that sustain the criminal injustice system, they are at the forefront of linking policing, prisons, and racial capitalism. In the same way our legal system disenfranchises vulnerable populations, so too does our education system pick and choose which students matter and which lives deserve a future. Through my fellowship with Equal Justice Works, and under the leadership of Liyah Brown at TCRP, I will focus on confronting this education injustice head-on.
Peter Steffensen (Senior Attorney), Liyah Brown (Director of Law & Policy), Zach Dolling (Staff Attorney), Ingrid Norbergs (Senior Attorney) & Travis Fife
Across Texas, students walk into school every day surrounded by surveillance, police presence, and harsh disciplinary policies. For Black and brown students, the same violent policing that characterizes life in overpoliced communities infiltrates their schools and pollutes their educational experience.
Far from promoting safety, the marriage between law enforcement and education recreates racism and criminalizes poverty from a young age. At wealthy schools, parents may raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide struggling kids with additional resources such as positive behavioral interventions, tutoring, mental health counseling, and greater access to extracurricular activities. In poorer schools, students who misbehave are suspended, expelled, or arrested. These inequities sustain intergenerational poverty as those with the least resources are the most likely to end up excluded from the educational services they need.
As a lawyer with the Criminal Injustice Team, I am grateful for the opportunity to stand with students, parents, teachers, and other advocates calling for police-free schools. Together, we can transform education in Texas so that all students have a chance to learn.