When Walking to School Is Unsafe

11/19/2010 05:44 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

When I heard that Taliban insurgents had thrown acid into the faces of Afghan schoolgirls, I was infuriated. Could there have been a more destructive, misogynistic form of institutionalized oppression? Like many Americans, I questioned how such inequality and subjugation could persist in the 21st century. Why, by shear virtue of birthplace, weren't female students in Afghanistan afforded the same educational rights as those in the United States?

And yet, unbeknownst too much of America, many of our own children face risks associated with systematized violence on their journey to school. It was not until I became a public school teacher in a low-income neighborhood that this fact became reality. Like many other Americans from a middle class background, I was so removed from the social issues facing underrepresented communities, my new school could have just as easily been located in Kabul.

It was in a heart-breaking discussion with three students that I first grasped the extent to which crime and violence can seep into the educational realm. The impetus for the conversation? One of the students had been robbed on his walk to school. The incident occurred when the young man was stopped by a coterie of boys, clad in red, who insisted he join their group. As red clothing is synonymous with the Bloods gang, the student was hesitant to approach. Amid the moment of indecision, they swarmed him, ripped the gold chain from his neck, and ran away. While he told the story, his two classmates cajoled, "They've tried to get me that way too. You just have to do what they say because there is nothing you can do. They could have a gun."

As the conversation progressed, my students matter-of-factly described the ways in which threats of violence dictate their daily routines and decisions. To avoid being targeted as an individual with money, one student claimed he no longer dressed up to school. That day, as with every other day, he wore sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt. Another young man described the necessity of altering his route home every few weeks to avoid ambushes from individuals who may have it memorized.

How do these extenuating environmental factors influence our schools and students? After being robbed, my student descended into a reclusive state and was unable to complete class assignments. It was not until seventh period that he even felt comfortable discussing the issue with peers and teachers.

Sadly, this type of occurrence is not an anomaly for children in my school. While some students respond defensively to threats of gang activity, i.e. dressing poorly or altering the streets they take home, others subscribe to an offensive approach. My students who have been actively involved with gangs cite "the need for protection" as a primary catalyst for their participation. Unfortunately, the false sense of security they glean from this "can't beat 'em, join 'em" approach is short lived and they are inevitably catapulted into more serious crimes and violence. Case in point? Several of my male students have spent or are currently spending time in jail.

The tragic outcomes accompanying gang culture are also evident at school. It is not uncommon for boys at our school to wear pictures of deceased friends on custom made shirts, hats, and buttons. One of my students even has an obsession with printing news articles about his friends who've been arrested or shot. For him, the ritual seems cathartic. For me, it is indicative of a great social problem.

The police precinct nearest my school reports at least one murder per week. That does not include other violent or petty misdemeanors which are far more commonplace. And somehow, these narratives are absent in our news reports and political conversations. The current dialogue among media sources and policy makers remains so narrowly focused on policing ruffians abroad, we are overlooking the impact of organized crime in< em>this country. How is the indoctrination of minority boys to an unlawful lifestyle so different than the indoctrination young Muslims into jihad? Both capitalize on an "us" versus "them" mentality for support and subscribe to violence as a necessary means to an end. Yes, to uphold national security, we must stop Al-Qaeda. And yes, we must squelch the drug war in Mexico. But are gang members any better than terrorists? They certainly terrorized my student.

As America spends trillions of dollars to fight wars abroad, we must not marginalize the importance of fighting systemic violence on the domestic front. Our schools are perhaps the best vehicle through which we can curb and prevent the desperation that leads to a life of crime. By allocating more funds to schools, we could provide at-risk students with safer alternatives, such as arts and sports programs. Or, we could invest in initiatives like the Harlem Children's Zone and the Promise Neighborhoods Institute which seek to improve the lives of school children by addressing social issues in their neighborhoods. What if, instead of extending Bush Era tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans, we bolstered projects that will keep children off the streets?

In all the bipartisan squabbling, health care reform hoopla, and international officiousness, are we perhaps too complacent about the impact of gang warfare existing in Americans poorest neighborhoods? No child should feel unsafe on their walk to school. And never should a student feel that a gang is their best option. If we are to turn around struggling schools, we owe this issue a bit of attention. Our children's lives and futures depend on it.