Collyn Robinson, Staff Photographer

Students for Educational Justice, a youth-led advocacy group based in New Haven, has spent the past six years fighting to make the city’s public schools safer for their students. That safety has taken many forms, including pushes to remove school resource officers, invest in mental health and center race in history curricula. 

The organizing group launched in May of 2017 after New Haven youth began calling for more Black and Latine history in New Haven classrooms.

SEJ branched off from the Black Heritage Academy, which was created in 2016 as a space for Black students to “share their untold American stories” about moments of great achievement and oppression, according to SEJ’s website. SEJ works with every high school in the district to emphasize direct student involvement through civic engagement and political education programs. These educational workshops are hosted by high school students from and around the New Haven area every Thursday afternoon in the Teen Center of the New Haven Free Public Library.

“Educational justice is not a direct, straight path,” Norah Laughter ’26, who had a fellowship with SEJ through Yale’s Community Organizing Fellowship over the summer, told the News. “It takes a lot of different things, like making facilities better, having a better teaching staff, having better meals for students, but ultimately, all of those things can be achieved through meaningful student voice and having a space for student power.”

Under the guidance of Co-Founder and Deputy Director Briyana Mondesir, SEJ works to counteract what Mondesir said the group sees as a tendency to trivialize student’s ability to impact their social climate.

To embrace these principles, SEJ runs the We M.O.V.E Program, which hosts gatherings that let students safely discuss topics such as engaging respectfully and effectively with teachers and handling race in the classroom. 

Laughter emphasized that a majority of the issues tackled by SEJ came from reports by students on the problems they witness and endure in schools. She said these problems include students not feeling emotionally supported and teachers perhaps not working to create safe spaces or not having the demographic background to reach and support all students. Laughter also mentioned some problems students have raised regarding a lack of effective outlets to express dismay with the education system and not feeling safe in schools as a result of their identity.

Sebastian Ward ’26, a former SEJ participant from New Haven, reflected on the impact that the SEJ’s approach had on him and his academic experiences. 

Ward said that one of the most impactful memories he had working with SEJ was helping organize testimonies in support of House Bill 7082, an act which required all Connecticut public high schools to have a course for both African American and Latinx history. 

“It helped me realize the importance of my people’s history, along with helping me develop skills in organizing and activism,” Ward wrote to the News.

According to Jacqueline Dohna, the program director for SEJ, the 2023-2024 school year will see several changes to better promote student engagement SEJ. Dohna added that the SEJ will be working with NHPS for the second installment of We M.O.V.E, entitled “A Journey Through Change.” 

Dohna wrote to the News that the updated program was developed with extensive student feedback and input from the previous school year. 

How we approach achieving educational justice within New Haven Public Schools varies from year to year and campaign to campaign, as we gain new members and encounter different issues that students are facing,” Dohna wrote. 

On a larger scale, organization leaders told the News they are hoping to shift attitudes on adultism, institutional racism, anti-Blackness, classism, white supremacy and other systems of oppression by offering classes to equip students with the language and vocabulary to talk about structural oppression, and how to dismantle it.

SEJ leaders also told the News students in those classes have recently turned their advocacy efforts towards the removal of police officers from schools across Connecticut and reinvesting those funds towards student mental health.

SEJ students are participating both in the statewide Community First Coalition and the SOS Campaign, urging NHPS to end its contract with the New Haven Police Department and re-invest NHPS resources into mental health support. 

The Students for Educational Justice programs are open to high schoolers and recent graduates, ages 13 to 20.

Brooklyn Brauner serves as a staff reporter for the City desk, covering Nonprofits and Social Services throughout New Haven, in addition to serving as the Thursday Newsletter Editor. Originally from Wisconsin, she is currently a sophomore in Grace Hopper College studying Political Science.