Middle school teacher Rian Reed has seen how words grab on to her students and cling. “They care deeply about what people say about them,” the D.C. educator said. “So, to have somebody just say something like that about them will stay in front of their brains and will impact them.”
By that she means the insult that Rep. Gary Palmer (R-Ala.) hurled at D.C. students when he called District schools “inmate factories” during a congressional hearing on Wednesday. “Your schools are not only dropout factories, they are inmate factories,” the lawmaker said to a panel of D.C. leaders who were called to testify at the hearing.
Palmer also called the schools “crappy,” although that was not the insult that left people across the city united in outrage. That is not what left them describing the his words as “disgusting,” “derogatory” and “demeaning.”
Inmate factories. That phrase is not artful or aimed at solutions. It is malicious and dismissive. It presents our children as problems in the making. Lawmakers understand the power of words. They rise and fall on sound bites. In using that phrase Palmer made a choice, and in the days since that hearing, parents, teachers and students who have spent time in D.C. schools have also made one: to not let his words go unchallenged.
“It really resembles bullying to me,” said Reed, who works at Kramer Middle School in Southeast Washington. “With our students just coming off the stress of the pandemic and dealing with real inequities, they do not deserve someone coming in and calling them inmates when they are truly gifted and talented and have so much to give to this world.”
Students at her school are told bullying will not be tolerated. They are taught that when you hurt someone, you try to make it right. “I really believe that he should apologize for his words,” Reed said. He should acknowledge his actions were harmful, whether he believes that or not, she said. “He should apologize because damage will be done for the carelessness of his word choice.”
Are you listening, Congressman Palmer? You owe D.C. students an apology. You also owe one to the many teachers who spend their days trying to build up those students you spent seconds tearing down.
“There are so many motivated teachers throughout D.C. public schools that care about the students, and not just on an education level but on a personal level,” Alex Clark, a teacher at Dunbar High School, said. He went to Seattle this past week to give a presentation to other teachers at a national conference. Clark described Palmer’s words as “hurtful” and agreed an apology is needed “especially toward our kids.”
“Hard not to be angered by someone only a mile away referring to the place you love and work as the ‘inmate factory,’” Eastern High School teacher Lee James tweeted. He posted a photo of students at the Holocaust Museum and explained that they were “learning about how words matter.”
More than a year ago, James posted a tweet featuring a video that drew more than 13,000 views. In that video, student Temitayo Adeola tells a school employee that he received a full ride to attend Columbia University and she screams.
One of our @EasternHS @EasternIB students shared some amazing news. I was ugly crying when I heard. @TemitayoAdeola1 you deserve everything you've worked for. pic.twitter.com/OLnK600TBa— mr. james (@Mr_JamesDC) December 1, 2021
“I’m a product of DCPS,” Adeola said of the public schools in the District when we talked over the phone between his classes at Columbia, where the 17-year-old is majoring in business and psychology. “DCPS does not produce inmates. DCPS produces scholars and future leaders.”
Adeola said one of his former classmates is on a prelaw track at Louisiana State University, another is training to be an engineer for Pepco, and yet another joined the fire academy and has already received several promotions. “The list goes on,” he said. “They have all gone on to do amazing things, even if they did not go to college.”
It should surprise no one that D.C. students go on to achieve success. They should not have to convince anyone of that. But Palmer’s attack made it feel necessary. It made it feel necessary to note that D.C. schools rank higher than Alabama schools and point out that nearly 75 percent of D.C. students graduated at the end of the 2021-2022 school year, an increase from previous years.
There is no doubt room for the city to improve its schools. Learning gaps exists. Teacher retention remains a challenge. No one I spoke to denied that more work is needed. But they all recognized that when a grown man in power dismisses the potential of our children, that undermines progress.
“My initial thoughts? I was angry,” said DaSean Jones, a graduate of Anacostia High School who has a daughter in college, two children in D.C. public high schools and one child at a charter school. He is also a member of Parents Amplifying Voices in Education. “I thought, who is this 68-year-old good ole boy from Alabama who is bashing D.C., which during my upbringing was well known as Chocolate City?”
Like many people, he saw Palmer’s words taking aim at schools filled with Black and Brown children. He also saw them void of recognition that, without statehood, the District does not have the same advantages as states. Context matters, and the personal and societal factors that lead a person to take one path and another to go a different way are more complicated than anything made in a factory.
“It is important to recognize that the history of gentrification in D.C. has made it so that we have a lot of students who are already further from opportunities than other students in the country,” said Liv Birnstad, a high school senior at Capital City and a student representative on the D.C. State Board of Education.
“Yet, despite that, we have persevered and achieved amazing things. However, because of sentiments like that expressed from the congressmen, D.C. students achieving anything but incarceration is portrayed as impossible.” That is especially problematic, Birnstad said, when people consider “the cyclical nature of incarceration in families.”
“A major part of staying out of carceral systems is students having confidence instilled in them that they can break these cycles,” the 18-year-old said, “and when adults in positions of power say violent things like that it contributes to those systems.”
Are you listening, Congressman Palmer? That is what it sounds like to speak thoughtfully about crime and to care about keeping children from seeing prison as some unavoidable fate. On Friday, Birnstad posted an update about her future on Twitter. “This Capital City ‘inmate,’” she wrote, “got into Harvard last night…!!!!”
This Capital City “inmate” got into Harvard last night….!!!! https://t.co/lYoGyYBi22— Liv Birnstad (@LBirnstad) March 31, 2023