It has been nearly a month since a madman shot 20 defenseless children and six of their caretakers in Newtown, Connecticut. National despair simmers.
What terrifies me as a civil rights attorney and as a mother is what the repercussions will be for black and brown children in the aftermath. Already, groups like the NRA and their corporate supporters have ridden this national wave of anger to propose more guns in the nation’s school buildings, to equip them for war.
One thing that has been absent from public discussion is how policy responses that are proposed and implemented in the wake of the Newtown tragedy will impact communities of color. And I continue to be appalled that swift, multi-sector policy reform efforts are made only when children in places like Newtown, where such tragedies are “not supposed to happen,” are affected.
I fear that new school safety policies will only exacerbate the trend of criminalizing black and brown children, an issue that was discussed with urgency on Capitol Hill just days before the shootings at Sandy Hook. Chances are that any increased school security will mean police will increase their presence in schools, police equipment will increase, and the psyche of the adults and children in the schools will adjust accordingly. The NRA’s proposal to put more guns in school buildings is overreaction of the worst kind and is downright terrifying. Too many black children already attend school with police who are armed and whose guns are trained in the wrong direction.
I also fear that we will repeat our mistakes: After the massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado that killed 12 children, policy makers scrambled from on high to develop something, anything, to put minds at ease. So school districts around the country embraced “zero tolerance” policies with new fervor. After Columbine, exclusionary discipline and imprisonment saw increased use as default school discipline methods. Although school crime was on the decline at the time, school suspensions and expulsions increased for all children. Over 100,000 students were expelled and 3,300,000 students were suspended at least once in the 2005-2006 school year, an 8 percent increase in suspensions and a 15 percent increase in expulsions since the 2001-2002 school year. Because of zero tolerance, students were suspended and expelled for such things as bringing a nail file, water gun, Tylenol and cough drops to school.
Meanwhile, racial disparities in student discipline proliferate. Black, Native American, and Latino students are more likely than white to be disciplined and referred to law enforcement out of school. Nationally, 17 percent of black students, or 1 out of every 6, were suspended at least once in 2009-2010 compared with one in every 20 white. Black children are three times more likely than white children to be suspended from school and four times more likely to be expelled. Twenty-five percent of black students with disabilities were suspended at least once in 2009-2010.
Indeed, the recent Washington Post article by Emma Brown about the expulsion gap between charter schools and traditional public schools is an illustration of what can happen with this wrong-headed focus on punishing students to protect students. Any school that is determined first to meet the unique needs of all of the students in its care, no matter who those students are or who their parents are or where they come from, will beget academic excellence.
Racial disparities in facets of the U.S. school system, socioeconomic achievement gaps, and our disappointing performance on international performance tests, all issues about which there is much hand-wringing, will never improve unless our mindsets do. Indeed, almost 60 years since the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the notion that children of color are less than their white peers endures. Somehow, we accept this as business as usual for black children.
It is no small thing that in the same week that the United States Senate convened the very first hearing to consider ways to end the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline,” 20 children died at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
At the Senate hearing, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) defined the “school-to-prison pipeline” as a “gateway to prison” from school that deprives children of “their fundamental right to education.” He also acknowledged the valid post-Columbine concerns that prompted an increased reliance on police in schools and increased use of zero tolerance school discipline policies. But he recognized that we overreacted:schoolyard fights now lead students to the police booking station instead of the principal’s office and some schools look more like prisons than nurturing learning environments.
Durbin cited well-known statistics that show that students who are suspended from school are twice as likely to repeat a grade and three times as likely to end up in the criminal justice system. Children who end up in the criminal justice system are more likely to fail in school. Children who fail in school have an increased chance of future arrest. A troubling cycle that has disproportionately trapped black children.
Black children experience and grieve over random violence, too. Black children grieve over lives lost in Newtown, too. For too many black children, after Columbine, metal detectors and constant police presence in their schools is now a given and zero tolerance is a way of life.
Many of these same kids don’t have access to highly qualified teachers, much less the counselors and social workers needed to work through the things they witness in their neighborhoods and the hurt they experience over lives lost in a school in Connecticut. But, these black and brown children will charge forward, every day doing their best to rebut the presumption of criminality and the rhetoric of inferiority about what is “supposed to happen” to them. We can charge forward with them.
As we continue to sort through our national grief in search of solutions, I implore us all to engage in difficult conversations about where we want to go from here to protect all of our children. I am encouraged that the national conversation has begun to take a hard look at gun control and mental health. And I urge school districts to speak for all children as they consider school safety policies. We have to get this right so that we can say that the 20 children who died – including one who was my namesake – died so that we can move forward for everyone.
Allison R. Brown is a former trial attorney for the Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section and the founder of the education consulting firm Allison Brown Consulting (ABC).
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