Student rights? There's an app for that.

Schott's Senior Vice President of National Partnerships, Cassie Schwerner, was so impressed with Youth on Board’s new Boston Student Rights app – the first of its kind in the country – she decided to talk with staff and student leaders to learn more about it. Here, she chats with Carlos Rojas, Education Policy Organizer for Youth on Board (YOB).

CASSIE SCHWERNER: Why did young people, youth organizers, in the Boston area feel the need to create the Boston Student Rights app?

CARLOS ROJAS: Young people of color, trans youth and others are being criminalized and pushed out of schools. Did you see the video of the police officer in the South Carolina classroom? That sort of violence happens all over. We knew we needed a new organizing tool to help us reach young people in the schools – young people most affected by the school-to-prison-pipeline. But we also knew the tools we had used before, like palm cards and posters, were not practical for many of the situations young people find themselves in. We wanted something that could be immediately on hand when a young person was being confronted by figures of authority, something they would always have access to.

CS: Makes sense – young people have phones on them, when they might not have a paper document right there.

CR: Yeah. We like to say we are “harnessing the power and popularity of technology.” With a mobile app, we can share information on students’ rights and responsibilities and Boston Public Schools’ discipline policies quickly, in real time. If we’re going to dismantle the school-to-prison-pipeline, young people need to know their rights, and teachers and administrators need to know the policies, too. If we all know them, then that’s the best strategy.

CS: So who had the idea for the app, and how did you go about putting it together?

CR: The Boston Student Advisory Council – or BSAC – has been working for more than fifteen years to develop and implement policies within Boston Public Schools that aim to improve school culture and promote student voice and the fair, equitable treatment of students. BSAC were the founders of the Code of Conduct Advisory Council, which worked on achieving equity in school discipline, so the app was the next logical step – providing easy-to-access, portable information about student rights.

BSAC worked to help develop Boston’s new student Code of Conduct, as well as new policies on the state level. These policies are the start of keeping young people in school, but if nobody knows the policies, and they aren’t enforced, they won’t do any good.

CS: How did you go about developing the technology?

CR: Actually, this was far more complicated than we anticipated. First, we thought, “MIT is in our backyard – we can get a tech wizard grad student to build this with us!” As it turned out, that didn’t happen right away. [Note to tech wizards: please volunteer your skills…]

In the end, we found a very talented web designer who conducted design workshops with our students to gather their feedback. He used their input to develop a web app and Android app that could be easily edited by students.

There are challenges, though. We’re looking to make the app better and have a grievance-reporting function in it so students can let us know when they feel their discipline rights have been violated. We believe that’s key to not only getting data about student rights violations in schools, but also to making students feel heard, especially when they’re going through the suspension or expulsion hearing process. This is ultimately about improving school climate, the relationship between students and teachers, and keeping young people engaged and in school.

CS: What feedback have you gotten since you launched the app this summer?

CR: There has been a tremendous and positive response to the Boston Student Rights app. We were actually surprised. It’s been downloaded over 4,000 times. That’s way beyond what we expected! It’s gotten some great press in Boston. WBUR’s Learning Lab wrote a wonderful story that was read by thousands of organizations and individuals. Dr. Tommy Chang, Boston Public Schools’ new superintendent, tweeted about the app his first day on the job, and the White House tweeted about us, too!

We have support from the teachers’ union, administrators, teachers, parents and students – we think that’s pretty amazing for this type of thing.

CS: What impact has the Boston Student Rights app had so far?

CR: We’re hearing from students that they feel safer, empowered and more at ease knowing that they have their rights in their pockets. Students are telling us they are walking down the halls in a different way, and they’re sharing the information with their friends and teachers.

We collected a great story from Bryan, one of our student users. He says, “I feel good knowing I have the app at my beck and call. I feel that I don't go into situations blind, and I know what I'm saying and doing when interacting with hostile administrators or school resource officers. Recently, a school resource officer – he tried to harass me and accuse me of breaking school rules, even though I knew I wasn't. I was able to remind him – using the app and its citations to the code of conduct – what my rights were, and that the school can't suspend me over minor conflicts without a hearing.” We’re still working on getting the information out to more students across the district. It’s an ongoing effort.

CS: What reaction has the app gotten elsewhere in the country? Do other youth and parent organizers know about it?

CR: We were contacted by Forbes Magazine, Student Press Law Center, Good Magazine and Harvard Law School, among others. Several other school districts are interested in replicating the app, but we don’t have the resources to do much with other groups.

Our app is specific to Boston and our Code of Conduct, but we hope to see student-led efforts to build awareness of student rights and discipline procedures around the state. We’re currently working with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice to expand student rights resources throughout Massachusetts. We are working with them to develop a statewide toolkit for students and parents that will walk them through their rights.

CS: Can funders take advantage of this opportunity?

CR: Yes! It would be great for funders to support districts in replicating the Student Rights app – it is such a powerful tool for students and has the capacity to change students’ lives. We can envision the app being used as an organizing tool by students across the country as a way to promote students’ rights, improve school climate and stop the school-to-prison pipeline. We have already had a commitment by the Student Press Law Center to collaborate on this project. It’s our hope that foundations, organizing groups and others work with us to create a Student Rights app for every district, so that every student in the country has access to this information in their schools.

CS: Do you think an app like this could’ve made a difference in the incident at Spring Valley High School?

CR: In Boston, we have a relatively progressive Code of Conduct when it comes to student rights, and we know that other districts have a lot further to go. The students who filmed the incident at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina used technology to capture a horrific violation of their fellow classmate’s rights and dignity. It is important to us that technology continues to be used as a tool for students to hold their schools accountable while also empowering them with an understanding of what their rights are.

However, we also want administrators, student resource officers and teachers to be trained in students’ rights, what the school-to-prison pipeline is, and how they can work to de-escalate conflict and keep their students in school. We need adults to listen to the voices of their students, and if an app can facilitate this, then we support that app being replicated anywhere!

CS: Okay, so – lessons learned?

CR: One thing we’ve learned is that we can’t rely on pro bono tech wizards! They aren’t always available, wonderful as they can be. Now that we’re needing to make changes, we’re realizing that it’s important to have some funds available to pay for services, if you don’t have capacity within your organization to do everything yourself.

CS: What are your next steps?

CR: Right now, we’re trying to secure funds to hire a developer to help make the app more user-friendly. We’re adding student surveys to the app, and a grievance function that will send reports directly to the district. We’re also creating a toolkit to help students through the hearing process and developing a relationship with Harvard Law Students who have agreed to set up a help line and produce informational videos for high school students.

There is necessary ongoing student outreach to keep this in front and center. There’s so much happening and all so quickly – it’s amazing to be part of this!

Access the Boston Student Rights app at!

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