Education or Enforcement? Ward 7 decides

February 7, 2014
President George W. Bush talks with students at Merritt Elementary School Jan. 25, 2001. White House Photo by Eric Draper
President George W. Bush talks with students at Merritt Elementary School Jan. 25, 2001.
White House Photo by Eric Draper

If you’re looking for an awful metaphor for what’s happening in some under served areas of the District, look no further than the former Merritt Middle School in Northeast. This morning, Mayor Vincent Gray joined other public-safety officials to announce plans for the vacant building’s reincarnation: a police station. Specifically, MPD’s new 6th District Headquarters and Youth Investigations Division. Instead of fostering young people’s  futures, as it once did, it is now another sober symbol of the myriad of  difficult circumstances that impact poor black children in this city.

The hasty, angry response would be to say that maybe if more schools were open, there would be no need for entire divisions of officers to investigate kids. But we know it’s not that simple. According to The Washington Post’s “Great Schools Rating” metric, Merritt  received a score of zero. And like many other schools that faced closure during Michelle Rhee’s tenure as schools chancellor, it was closed in 2008 and then used by MPD as a warehouse.

But the place has a little history. According to the 2008 book, “Washington, D.C.’s Deanwood,” by The Deanwood History Committee, it was named after Emma F.G. Merritt, “a longtime educator and civic leader who served as president of the local NAACP, a member of the executive board of the Southwest Settlement House, and chairman of Committee on Finance of the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA.”

It also happens to where President George W. Bush showed up in 2001 to press for school reforms. According to a New York Times article, at the then-elementary school “Mr. Bush and his wife, Laura, a former teacher and librarian, visited several classes. They shook hands and asked students about their work. The president’s aides said that they picked Merritt for the visit because it has a strong curriculum and gives students annual progress tests. Such testing, Mr.  Bush said, is ‘the essence of excellence in education,’ and is necessary ‘to make sure children are not left behind.’” The article says that according to Bush’s office, at the time, 8 in 10 students there lived below the poverty level.

A press release from the event was even more depressing. The transformation from school to a MPD facility is being touted as an “investment” in Ward 7.  I can’t imagine that as a kid, I’d see that gleaming new law enforcement center as a path to a great future. And with the facility set to specifically house a unit designed to help find children who commit crimes, it feels particularly cruel to juveniles who might have attended the school and might not any longer.

Granted, they also work on finding and helping kids in at-risk situations, which is a needed service. But it sends the message of: it wasn’t worth it for us to invest in you as student, but as a criminal or runaway, we’ll slap on energy-efficient equipment and LEED Silver Certification to make sure that you’re in the system.

“The transformation of Merritt School for the Metropolitan Police Department is another example of how the District is leveraging every facility and asset possible to support the work of our first responders,” Mayor Gray said Friday morning, according to the release. “This makes all of us safer.”

That really depends on who “us” is.

Clinton Yates is a D.C. native and an online columnist. When he's not covering the city, pop culture or listening to music, he watches sports. A lot of them.
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