What’s worse than the school to prison pipeline? The school itself becoming the prison.
Morris “Moss” Jeffries is a high school student in Oakland, CA. As a young child Moss witnessed his father being killed by police, leaving him subject to severe panic attacks. His close friends and family understand and support him, helping him through episodes. Moss’s school is underfunded: stapled, photocopied pages instead of bound textbooks, classrooms in disrepair, and students having to go without basic materials is the norm. Yet somehow there is enough funding for “student safety,” which begins with a police officer on staff who conducts random, mandatory locker checks. A confrontation between a trans student and the officer turns violent when he finds the student’s medication and, assuming they are a drug dealer, gets physical. The administration blames the student for the altercation and responds by escalating their tactics. Students are now forced to enter the building through metal detectors. Thanks to the incompetence – and enthusiasm – of the officers monitoring the detectors, a disabled student is severely injured. Despite being the very type of situation that triggers Moss’s panic attacks, he finds himself helping to lead the charge to fight back against the school’s policies. His mother has a background in community activism. After her husband’s murder she’d stepped back, but engages again to help Moss and his friends draw on community support to plan peaceful protests. Those peaceful protests turn deadly, thanks largely to a combat ready police force. The event which finally leads the school to “reevaluate” the prison like practices is deeply cynical and absolutely realistic.
Author Mark Oshiro’s narrative accurately reflects the complexity of teens’ lives, deftly blending relationships, queer first loves, activism, and mental health issues. The characters are well crafted, relatable and realistically diverse in culture, class, sexuality and gender identity. An increasingly militarized police force, an overwhelmed, underfunded school system and the everyday issues teens face are woven into a story that at times reads much more like non-fiction. Even the weapons and tactics the police force uses on protesters reflect actual practices. This book broke my heart, made me angry, and inspired me. I work in a public school and am blessed with a safety officer whose actions have repeatedly proven she cares about our students. Sadly I have observed other schools where the idea of safety was perverted into punitive rather than protective policies.
This story is sometimes painful to read, just as it should be. But the story is so well told and ideas within so important and inspiring, it should be read by young people and anyone who cares about them.
Mark Oshiro, Anger Is A Gift, TOR Teen