New Nonprofit Aims to End School-to-Prison Pipeline

Mckayla Wilkes. Campaign photo

After challenging U.S. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) during the recent Democratic primary, former congressional hopeful Mckayla Wilkes is launching a nonprofit organization that aims to end the funneling of kids from public school to prison.

Schools Not Jails, Wilkes’ new venture co-founded by two of her former campaign staffers, is set to officially launch Friday — just a month and a half after her 38-point loss at the polls.

She said that her inspiration for the organization comes from her own story.

After her aunt’s death during the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon, Wilkes suffered from undiagnosed clinical depression. 

“That really played a huge part in me acting out — my grief turning into rebellion,” she said.

As a teen, she skipped school, ran away from home and ended up in juvenile detention. 

Wilkes said the courts ignored her trauma and criminalized her mental health issues — deeming her a “bad kid” — a term she no longer believes in using. For every one day of school she missed, she would spend another 10 in juvenile detention. 

“Even something as much as getting bad grades could lead me into juvenile detention,” Wilkes explained. “And so I really wanted to start this organization to end the school-to-prison pipeline, so that stories like mine cease to happen.”

The organization is co-founded by Wilkes’ former staffers Dash Yeatts-Lonske, the organization’s managing director and Wilkes’ former campaign manager, and Carlos Childs, Schools Not Jails’ operations director and former campaign outreach coordinator.

Yeatts-Lonske said that the idea to start a nonprofit organization grew “organically” through voter interaction over the course of Wilkes’ congressional campaign.

After the campaign knocked on 50,000 doors and made over 400,000 phone calls, Yeatts-Lonske said that it was clear that voters in Wilkes’ district were interested in talking about the slippery slope that leads from public education to incarceration. He also told Maryland Matters that a lot of people called their offices as the calendar neared election day, asking for Wilkes’ advice on who to vote for in local judgeship and board of education elections.

The 5th congressional district takes in about half of Prince George’s County, a sliver of Anne Arundel County, and the three Southern Maryland counties.

“It was very eye-opening that a lot of people just don’t know where the candidates in these down-ballot races stand even though they’re super, super important races, especially when it comes to the school to prison pipeline — a lot of that stuff happens at the local and state level,” Yeatts-Lonske said. “We just, sort of, realized that there was a way that we can make a difference on the issue of the school to prison pipeline with the platform and organizing capacity that we had built already through the campaign.”

‘Very … grassroots’

Wilkes said that the organization will rally around a combination of policing, criminal justice and education reform, including removing school resource officers from public school campuses. 

“My son is in third grade, and there is an armed police officer at his school when he [went] to school every single day before quarantine,” she said. “But it’s still a thing.”

In the immediate, Schools Not Jails has its eyes focused on November’s local board of education and Circuit Court judge elections in Prince George’s and Charles counties.

In Maryland, Circuit Court judges have 15-year terms. Wilkes said that there are three candidates that Schools Not Jails is potentially interested in endorsing, but the group’s membership has yet to vote.

Yeatts-Lonske said that Schools Not Jails will prioritize “being very … grass-roots:” meaning that decisions to endorse candidates or fund projects must come democratically through conversations not just with board members, but with people who are directly impacted by issues surrounding the school-to-prison-pipeline — like teachers, guidance counselors and parents.

Yeatts-Lonske said the work he and Wilkes plan to do through the organization falls into three categories: advocacy, candidate endorsement and voter registration in low-turnout groups like the formerly incarcerated, adding that the organization plans to operate around the concept that “the people closest to the pain are closest to the solution,” and as such should be a part of the decision-making process.

Schools Not Jails will be registered as a 501(c)(4) social welfare organization — a designation that allows the group to endorse political candidates.

Yeatts-Lonske said that, for the sake of transparency, the organization has a set of principles that will be made public surrounding the organization’s funding, including:

  • Voluntarily publishing the names of donors who contribute over $1,000
  • Not accepting donations greater than 10% of the group’s annual operating budget, which he calls the “autonomy principle”
  • All political endorsements are made after a vote of the entire “membership body”

Additionally, Schools Not Jails is looking to engage Marylanders through strategic partnerships with organizations like Life After Release — a Prince George’s County nonprofit that offers support and re-entry services for incarcerated Marylanders.

Wilkes said that collaboration with other, local nonprofits and advocacy groups is an effort to “organiz[e] the left.”

“One of the things that we saw on the campaign trail is that as progressives, we really have to get more organized so that we can get more progressive people elected,” she said. “And so that’s one of our focuses as well, is building coalitions with other organizations in the area.”

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Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.