Minor changes have been made to protect the students and the school where this occurred. The following events occurred in a charter school.
Written on April 14, 2015
Today was the most challenging day I’ve had in the classroom. Our second grade class went on a field trip to the local Safety Learning Center, a place where they learn all about local safety when riding bikes, walking on the sidewalk, where to cross the road, all of that important stuff. The morning started out pretty good — we got there, the kids watched some videos, got to look at different signs, eat lunch, just generally go along with the program they have set up. Right after lunch, we took a trip over to the library, which is where the Safety Learning Center morning events are hosted (there is an outside area that is a life size play neighborhood where kids get to practice all of the safety skills they learned). The librarian did two read alouds, and then the kids got the chance to search for books and pick whichever ones they wanted to read while at the library. I have never in my life seen a group of kids more excited about getting to search through the racks in the library and pick out even one book to read through. Because they don’t have a library in their school — something that is extremely sad and bothersome, but not uncommon across the nation as budget cuts continue to destroy districts — these kids were absolutely ecstatic about this opportunity. So many of them said that they wanted to come back with their parents so they could check out the books that they were looking through during our class trip. The sight of these kids running through the bookshelves in the library, holding their books in the air with laughter and joy, was one of the greatest experiences of my life. And then, the afternoon happened.
Safety Learning Center and the library are right next to the local police station, so we took a short trip across the parking lot into the local police station/local jail. Here we met one of the local officers and went into the main office area. The walls were covered in posters of “gang signs to look out for” and the “Blood Brothers’ Bible.” At one point, I heard one students say, “Yo, I’ve seen that tattoo before!” The officer then came in, asked the students to quiet down, and reminded them that there are cameras everywhere and that they are being watched at all times. Then, to bring some “math” into the trip, we added up how many bullets he had on him. Yes, that was the math lesson. “Well, students; my gun is now loaded with 12 bullets. I have another 11 on my belt. How many bullets does that mean I have all together? And I have another 24 in the car, so now how many do I have?” I couldn’t believe what I was watching, and I was stunned into silence. Yes, this is a crucial conversation to have with students — What is the job of a police officer? Why do they carry guns with bullets in them? — but the approach was entirely inappropriate for my second graders. We then started touring the local police jail area. Students stood in front of the area where those who are arrested get their mug shots taken and where they are fingerprinted. It was astonishing to see a group of almost all Black and Latin@ children standing in this place, and that no one was talking about the vision in front of our eyes. All I could think was, how many of these students are going to end up here? How many of them are funneled out of our schools and into the school-to-prison pipeline? What does the gang life mean to these students? What relevance does this trip, this place, these conversations have to these students? But nothing — no conversation — not even an acknowledgement of the sight before us.
We toured the holding cells and students were told not to touch the walls as the officer showed us the food they give the inmates — small packages of mush. He told the students that you don’t get pillows, or a toothbrush, and have to stay for up to a week with no shower in the same clothes you were arrested in. At one point, he told the students that there are more holding cells for men because they are worse offenders than women. The statistics behind this argument didn’t matter to me in this moment. It was the fact that this officer was throwing these statistics to students with NO conversation about the implications of a statement like that on a young student. We finished by walking through metal detectors and out the exit. When we got back to school, the students watched Magic School Bus episodes and went home.
No conversation. No debriefing. Nothing. Not even a conversation among the teachers and student teachers about the day we just had.
When I left school, I ended up sitting in my car for a good 15 minutes before leaving. I could feel the tears streaming down my cheeks thinking about the day that had just happened. Had I been in a different position, I may have brought up my concerns about the lack of conversation and debriefing after the trip. But as a practicum student only at the school one day a week, I didn’t feel I was in a position to bring it up. Maybe I should have said something after school was over. Honestly, I didn’t know what was right to do in that moment. It just shocked me that we toured students of color through a local jail and didn’t say one word about the implications of a trip as such. Considering we had an hour before dismissal where students just sat around and watched a television show, it was not like we didn’t have time for this conversation. Just because these students are second graders doesn’t mean they can’t have conversations about police, prison culture, and what these mean for their communities. As one student had stated, “Yo, I’ve seen that tattoo before!” What kind of message does it send to students when we dismiss discussions relevant to their lives and experiences? What kind of message does it send to kids when a white police officer has young Black and Latin@ children count the bullets in his gun? And what kind of message does it send them when three white teachers and four white student teachers don’t say anything about it? My own white privilege played out on both the trip and my reflection on it — I could easily go home and not have to worry about the trip or the (lack of) conversation. But my students? They don’t have that privilege.
With the growing school-to-prison pipeline, touring our students through a jail, local or not, was an all-too-real reminder of the fate of many of our students. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, “Over the last four decades, the United States has undertaken a national project of over criminalization that has put more than two million people behind bars at any given time, and brought the U.S. incarceration rate far beyond that of any other nation in the world. A closer look at which communities are most heavily impacted by mass incarceration reveals stark racial and ethnic disparities in U.S. incarceration rates in every region of the country. Nationally, according to the U.S. Census, Blacks are incarcerated five times more than Whites are, and Hispanics are nearly twice as likely to be incarcerated as Whites.”
- African Americans now constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population
- African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites
- Together, African American and Hispanics comprised 58% of all prisoners in 2008, even though African Americans and Hispanics make up approximately one quarter of the US population
- According to Unlocking America, if African American and Hispanics were incarcerated at the same rates of whites, today’s prison and jail populations would decline by approximately 50%
- One in six black men had been incarcerated as of 2001. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime
- 1 in 100 African American women are in prison
- Nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).
This is extremely applicable to our understanding of the school-to-prison pipeline that disproportionately affect Black students. According to the ACLU, zero tolerance policies have resulted in Black students facing harsher punishment than white students in public schools; black students represent 31 percent of school-related arrests; Black students are expelled and suspended 3 times more than white students; students suspended or expelled for a discretionary violation are nearly 3 times more likely to be in contact with the juvenile justice system the following year.
My job as an educator is to have a deep understanding of the policies and practices in schools that, in effect, push the most at-risk students in our school system out of our schools and into the criminal justice system. There are larger systemic issues that cause this school-to-prison pipeline, such as:
- Underfunding our public schools: too often, especially in urban districts, schools are underfunded and therefore lack the necessary resources to provide a quality and equitable education. Often, large class sizes are prevalent, teachers lack the qualifications and desires necessary to serve these students, and services such as counselors, after school activities, etc. are the first to go.
- From the ACLU: “This failure to meet educational needs increases disengagement and dropouts, increasing the risk of later court involvement. Even worse, schools may actually encourage dropouts in response to pressures from test-based accountability regimes such as the No Child Left Behind Act, which create incentives to push out low-performing students to boost overall test scores.” We see this becoming more and more the case under current neoliberal privatization movements in education.
- Zero-tolerance policies: because schools lack the resources to handle certain issues, many have resorted to zero-tolerance policies that without question/automatically “impose severe punishment regardless of circumstances.” The ACLU report continues to say, “Overly harsh disciplinary policies push students down the pipeline and into the juvenile justice system. Suspended and expelled children are often left unsupervised and without constructive activities; they also can easily fall behind in their coursework, leading to a greater likelihood of disengagement and dropouts. All of these factors increase the likelihood of court involvement.”
As I re-read Holler If You Hear Me for one of my classes, I was constantly reflecting on my experience at my field placement school, especially after this field trip. I pulled out two quotes from the book that stood out to me most:
“The popular notion of what it’s like to teach in urban America is dominated by two extremes. On one hand are the horror stories, fueled by media reports that portray schools in chaos, incompetent administrators, hallways that are more dangerous than alleyways, students who lack even the most basic skills, parents who are uneducated and unconcerned. On the other hand is the occasional account of the miracle worker, the amazing super-teacher\savior who takes a ragtag group of city kids and turns their lives around overnight. Somewhere in between these two, between the miracles and the metal detectors, is where I teach.”
When people heard I was working in a school in an urban area, the first response I got was, “make sure to lock your doors and keep your windows up.” I can’t deny that I would’ve preferred pretty much any other reaction than this. These people — including our children — who are too often labeled “troubled,” “thugs,” etc. are some of the nicest, hardest working people I have ever met in my life; harder working than anyone I know, really. Why have we — the general public in the rhetoric we use — decided that these kids are automatically troublemakers and thugs? Why do I have to say, in the first place, that they’re nice and hard-working, as if it’s out-of-the-norm? It’s horrific. By touring this jail today, all I could think was that too many people have already decided that these students belong here. That this is their only destiny. Maybe if we funded our public schools we wouldn’t need the charter movement. Maybe if our curriculum reflected the experiences of students of color, we wouldn’t have so many students disconnected from a schooling experience that doesn’t address their realities. Maybe if we resourced our schools and changed the conversation… Maybe then, these students would be given the same chance despite the color of their skin. Maybe those who don’t know how hard these students work and how much they matter wouldn’t see the jail cell as their destiny.
“But I cringe at the news reports and studies that suggest that all urban kids really need it to get back to basics. Because what often seems to accompany this idea is a belief that the basics are all poor Black and Spanish-speaking children are capable of learning. That we have to endlessly drill them with exercises and worksheets and tests that keep them busy but leave no time for doing or making things, no space for real thought.”
I am making a promise to myself to always teach the students sitting in front of me, and treat them first and foremost as human beings. I am promising myself to always reflect on my privilege as a white person and future teacher, and what this means for the students I teach. As an educator, especially a future white educator, it is my duty to see students of color as whole, real beings with futures outside of the four walls of my classroom and without having boxed them into the four walls of a cell. Their experiences should be addressed, so that unlike the school I was in, the students’ lived experiences are not ignored. It’s crucial to see black and brown children as more than future troublemakers, as more than “thugs” as white supremacy wants us to believe, and that we as educators support these students to cultivate future successes so they can fulfill their potential.
As educators, we cannot do any less.