A few days ago, the New York State Civil Liberties Union released a report that raised attention to the racial disparities of NYC school arrests. In the first report of its kind, focusing on summer school months, the report mentions that the NYPD arrested and gave summonses to more than one student a day in the public school system. Over 90 percent of these students were students of color.
While this report raises major concerns about racism in NYC public schools, it calls our attention to an issue that is present in urban school districts across the country. In the days since the release of this report a story about a high school student who was arrested for burping in class and another 5-year-old boy that was bound and arrested, have allowed us to see just how much schools have developed a culture of incarceration.
While the statistics and stories mentioned above are alarming, it is important to note that for every story that makes the headlines, and for every statistic that is revealed in reports, there are thousands of students who are being treated like criminals in their own schools every day. For many of these students, the schools they attend have become a place where the pipeline to prison has widened, and the pipeline to higher education has shrunk. Within schools, students are learning the procedures for having handcuffs placed on them, becoming accustomed to the voices of uniformed adults yelling at them, and seeing bars on their classroom windows. When this is happening, it is impossible for the students to be prepared for thinking critically, questioning inequity, and empowering themselves.
Over the last few weeks, I have been on the "Less Talk More Action" tour, which has taken me to schools, prisons, and town hall meetings in three states. On my visits to prisons, the most powerful thing I have witnessed has been the deep the connection between prisons and urban schools. In many ways, the school administrators can be likened to the wardens, the teachers to the correction officers, and the students to the inmates. I have seen students being herded from class to class much in the same way that prisoners are moved from the mess hall to the prison yard. In both the schools and prisons, I have had to endure pat downs and metal detectors, witnessed broken spirits and hopelessness, and seen physical structures like walls and bulletin boards that look exactly the same in shape and style in both prisons and in schools.
Our youth are arrested within urban schools that are physically structured just like prisons. However, these structures alone do not cause the arrests. Below are some of the reasons why kids are being arrested, along with some insight about what we can do about it.
1.We have a tainted view of what a good school/education is
Many parents have been led to believe that good schools for urban youth are those that provide structures that give youth order. Parents believe that classrooms where students are silent, where they walk around quietly, and where they do not have conversations with each other are providing students with a good education. Unfortunately, this is far from the truth. These types of schools teach students to be docile, tells them that accepting whatever information they are given without questioning it is acceptable, and treats them like they are prisoners.
Students who challenge the rigid structure of schools by finding a voice, and acting like youth should, are seen as disruptive. In way too many cases, they have been arrested for disorderly conduct. Parents and educators must realize that a good school allows youth to be expressive, does not require yelling of orders, and supports students who question authority by teaching them how to do so constructively. If you visit a school that seems too sanitized, that doesn't allow socialization, and where it doesn't look like kids are enjoying their time in school, that is not the place you want your child.
2. Many teachers are scared of their students
One of the chief reasons why Black and Latino youth of color are arrested at a higher rate than their peers is that in many instances, teachers are afraid of them. While it is not socially acceptable to make this statement, it is often the case in schools. Consider the everyday instance when a suburban 5 foot teacher is teaching, and a 6 foot 5 black male questions her authority in the classroom. Rather than address the situation through her teaching, the teacher will often call school safety officers, and escalate the situation. While this is not the case in every situation, I have seen this type of scenario often enough that it's a trend in schools.
Parents must teach youth that these scenarios will happen, and prepare their children to remain calm, not get agitated, and write down everything that has happened from their perspective as soon as they can. This allows them to deescalate the situation, and gives them a constructive medium to vent. The parent can then address the situation later, using the written statement as a part of the conversation.
3. Many teachers do not understand the culture of diverse students
In many scenarios urban teachers misunderstand the ways that urban youth communicate, and jump to conclusions about what is happening in a number of situations. Consider a scenario where two female students are speaking loudly and using hand gestures, and the teacher misperceives the conversation as a fight that is about to happen. Before long, school safety officers get involved, an argument ensues, and students are arrested. Parents must remind educators that it is their responsibility to not make conclusions about the intent of students, and not perceive their cultural expressions as anything other than what it is.
This requires very open lines of communication between the parent and the school. Parents should write a contract early in the academic year that is signed by the teachers, which states that if there is any occurrence in the classroom where the teacher believes that your child is enacting a behavior that is problematic, that they will call you right away.
4. Many youth haven't been taught about conflict resolution
One major issue why many youth get arrested in school is their lack of training on how to avoid conflict. In instances where a peer, a teacher or the school safety officer agitates them, it is important not to react in a way that provides officers with a justification for arrest. Consider the case of the 5-year-old boy who was arrested last week. He was bound illegally, but was not arrested for his behavior, for assaulting the police officer. Youth have to realize that their interaction with the police is where they must be most reserved. It is difficult to be arrested when the officer arrives and there is no immediate justification for the arrest.
Parents must speak to youth frankly about these situations, and model what appropriate behavior in the presence of a law enforcement officer is.
5. We shelter youth from systemic bias
In efforts to shelter their children, many teachers and parents withhold valuable information from them. When this happens youth are unable to see that their experiences are part of a systemic issue. They don't see that they have a responsibility to avert these situations, and also question the inequities that exist. Statistics that were released by the NYCLU should be read around the kitchen table at home, and become part of classroom lessons. Stories about student arrests, the overpopulation of certain groups of people in prisons, and the statistics surrounding graduation rates and achievement gaps should be discussed with youth as soon as they can understand them.
At the same time, conversations about how being at risk can develop into the resilience to overcome these issues must be had as well. When youth realize that they are part of a larger collective, and that the decisions they make have implications on the world beyond them, they work to avert certain situations, and learn to advocate for others.