When will public school administrators stop calling the police on Black elementary school children?

“Police Officer Arrest Crying 6-Year-Old Girl For Having School Tantrum: During the clip, the girl can be heard sobbing and begging the officers not to place the handcuffs on her wrists and to ‘please let me go’.”

And so, when will public school administrators stop calling the police on Black elementary school children?

Short answer #1: When the communities where these children live decides to stop them!
Short answer #2: When some courageous and bold district or school-based leader decides to treat their students as if they are their own children!

“…When the societal, psychological, political, anthropological and historical factors are in play in a disciplinary procedure, we could understand how a school-administrator’s decision-making process might be driven by the conscious or unconscious factors of: “This (privileged and entitled) child looks like me, like my child, like the children in my family, like the children of my friends and neighbors; and therefore I see this child as worthy of every compassionate and ‘redemptive effort’ I can employ in protecting them”. You can imagine the opposite reasoning and outcome when that child is not a member of the privileged and entitled class. But what I tragically learned as a superintendent, is that this separate and unequal approach to disciplinary procedures; could also be practiced by school administrators who looked very much like the children of color they were discriminatorily hurting!…” –From a soon to be published book.

The hyper-criminalization of Black elementary school children is rooted in a deep societal culture of racism. A society of public-school systems designed to produce a class of disenfranchised poorly educated citizens, versus the same system designed to produce a class of enfranchised effectively educated citizens. Public schools have been given an ‘unwritten’ mission; and that is to serve as a ‘feeder system’ for a very large and extensive (from bail bondsman to the companies that supply prisons with toilet paper) human raw material hungry criminal ‘justice’ system; and part of that ‘feeder system’ process is to socialize Black and Latino children early into feeling comfortable in a criminal status. A public school (and its leader), will choose to either serve as an organization of resistance to that culture of racism; or as a compliant bureaucratic implementer of that racist culture.

The Black community could start a collective resistance movement to these acts of disciplinary discrimination by stopping school system and political leaders from doing ‘wave-bys’ in Black churches and Black organizations; where all they need to do is drop-in and drop the “Segregation” word, or talk about how some standardized exam is “racist”, and they are immediately issued a lifetime ‘cookout pass’. To paraphrase Malcolm: “You have been rendered incapable of knowing the difference between your enemies and your friends!” What these educational/political leaders should be forced to do is address the systemic acts of explicit bias; like the absence of the integration of a quality learning environment for PreK-12 Black children; no matter who these children sit next to in class. Also, there could be an accountability call on them to end the racist and discriminatory academic unpreparedness of K-8 Black children, who are unable to do well on any standardized exam (or in any high school specialized or not). It has been well documented(1) from the works of Jaime Escalante on the west coast, to Science Skills Center on the east coast; that demonstrably and unquestionably proves that Black and Latino children have the brain capacity to pass any exam, meet and master any and all admissions and academic standards of any institution; IF and only if they are fairly provided with the learning standards and objectives that are being assessed; and importantly that those learning standards and objectives are delivered (as they are with their entitled peers) by technically effective instructors, and the ethically efficacious attitudes of high expecting school-building administrators and teachers. The quality of learning discrimination is the parallel partner of the application of the disciplinary codes discrimination process.

School-based administrators must ask themselves: Are you in the punishing, causing punitive pain and destroying future possibilities business. Or, are you in the education, restoration, protecting children and facilitating dreams and aspirations business? Know then that there is nothing in public education more ‘segregated’, ‘separate and unequal’, then how the disciplinary rules and regulations are carried out. Serving as a superintendent for 7 years I never once received a request for a superintendent’s suspension for a white child. But then I would hear that some white kid “tore up” a classroom and both the teacher and students in the class were ducking for their lives; and so, where was his superintendent’s suspension? Meanwhile, let a Black 2nd grade male child make a paper bazooka in an arts and crafts lesson and folks at the school are ready to call the Department of Homeland Security! (I had to tell one principal to chill out: “For years, every week as a kid, me and my buddies played “cops and robbers” and “Army” in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park; but when we left the park we did not hurt or shoot anyone!”) It’s often just a matter of caring enough and taking the time to talk (and listen) to a child in order to find out what’s really going on with them.

A disciplinary problem is often a child asking for help incorrectly—But the professionally thoughtful approach to ‘misbehavior’ is the standard response to the entitled child “acting-out” *. I always thought it was amazing how professional educators suddenly forgot all of that ‘good’ and ‘compassionate’ developmental psychology theory stuff we studied in our education courses, when it came to apply these methods to children of color.

I literally had to privately threatened principals, many who were phenotypically black; (with tongue firmly in cheek) that if they brought me another elementary student superintendent’s suspension without pictures of the surface-to-air-missile-launcher that the child pulled on them in their office, that I was going to write them up for wasting my time. Stop it! “You are a grown man or woman, why do you feel physically threatened by an elementary child, such that you must call the police or me on them? I have spent my entire principalship in the high school, where many of the students were bigger and stronger than I was; and yet there wasn’t one day that I did not feel safe; and, I definitely was not depending on my superintendent (and she was not having it), or the police department to keep my school safe.” I also warned principals to stop acting scared, your disciplinary polices can’t be driven by your fear of what the teacher’s union or some ‘politically connected’ person will do to you. When dealing with a disciplinary issue in your school be fair, be honest and don’t be afraid to do that which is the most professionally and ethically right thing to do.

The other major area of disciplinary discrimination is the: ‘quick-charging’, ‘over-charging’ and ‘excess penalization’ of Black and Latino children. The NYS legislature actually got it right with their challenge to discriminatory bail laws; it’s the ‘discretionary’ aspect that is at the core of the problem. For some of us in this nation “discretionary” translates into deleterious discriminatory practices. And parents have no idea of the huge amount of interpretive discretionary power a school principal has at their disposal; or the knowledge as to how that principal dealt with the same issue but with another child. Culture and race “perceptions” are always in full play in school disciplinary matters.

Unbeknownst to many, there are some ‘entitled’ (‘good’) high schools that have ‘drug problems’; however, when students are caught with a ‘substance’, the response is therapeutic and not criminal. Every thought and care is focused on protecting that child’s (and that’s the correct approach) future aspirational possibilities; including keeping both the incident and the therapeutic drug counseling they receive a secret from colleges and potential future employers.

“Who are your parents”, “how you look”, “who you are”, and “where you live” (zip code), could very much be the determining factors in the treatment you receive when you violate any school district disciplinary regulation; those that say otherwise are not being honest. In schools young Black boys (especially if they are dark) can be made to “look” bigger, stronger, older, and therefore more threatening than their actual size, age, personality and intent; tall or big white boys on the other hand could be seen as “lanky”, “growth sprouting”, or just tall; but most important they are seen as children! A Black child in a school disciplinary situation (and sensibly not trustful of the system), might remain silent and not respond to any questions from a school administrator; but this act could be interpreted as ‘aggression’ on the child’s part, go figure! I have experienced situations (again with both black and white educators) where Black girls who were standing up for themselves were perceived as being “sassy” or “acting grown”; while white girls of the same age and grade, exhibiting the same self-affirming behavior were perceived as being “empowered” and “confident”.

So much of the disciplinary actions taking place in public schools is done (consciously and unconsciously) through the cultural lens of American racial discrimination, Which is why those who are not subject to the pain of discriminatory bail practices or “stop and frisk”; don’t feel or understand, and therefore dismiss the pain of those practices when they are inflicted on those of us who are the targets of those policies.

As a superintendent you see everything; while some schools practice both a progressive and a “progressive disciplinary” process; others engage in a certified non-stop school to prison program. At some schools kids get “time-outs” and in others that same behavior could lead to receiving a time in-school or out of school suspension. A principal’s suspension (on the record) in one school, could be an in-school suspension (not in the child’s permanent record) or a suspension from a ‘fun activity’ in another school; or, even inside of the same school-building there could be different disciplinary policies and penalties for different children (and I’m not talking about special education here).

The children of enfranchisement (whose parents and community leaders don’t play), make it very clear: “Keep my child’s name out of any formal and permanent disciplinary record system!” While the less fortunate children of disenfranchisement are for the same ‘violations’, put in the express lane to documented disciplinary actions. This will only end when the parents of children who are fast-tracked through the preparatory-criminal justice system join with some brave education and community leaders to take an uncompromising stand to protect their children. I know from experience that this can end because when I told principals to stop bringing me “baby suspensions”, and to also stop traumatizing small children by calling the police on them, it somehow stopped; which meant that there was no need for these practices in the first place.

Finally, school administrators must compassionately understand (and this is by no means a ‘knock’ on police officers), that there are children in our society for whom a disciplinary encounter with the police could be a terrifying and traumatic experience; I wish this was not true but it is what it is. Children of color could very well (for a lot of good reasons like Donald Trump) not see themselves as part of the community that the police have sworn to truly serve and protect. These children are not politically motivated; and even their community elders are reluctant to call the police when someone who is not committing a crime but is having a ‘mental-health issue’; in the main because there is no way to predict how that situation will turn out. But we do have a lot of information (including mine and other colleagues of color childhood stories), that these negative police encounters can emotionally hurt and be carried by Black and Latino children deep into their adulthood lives; even if, like me they somehow escape from the public-school to prison anti-scholarship program.

Michael A. Johnson has served as a public-school teacher, principal, and a school district superintendent. He also served as an adjunct professor of Science Education in the School of Education at St. John’s University. He is the author of a book on school leadership: Report to the Principal’s Office: Tools for Building Successful High School Administrative Leadership… http://reporttotheprincipalsoffice.net/

*We gave every principal a copy of: Behavior Intervention Manual: Goals Objectives, And Intervention Strategies; Samm N. House.

1. Science Assessment in the Service of Reform; American Association for the Advancement of Science; editors: Kulm, Gerald and Malcolm, Shirley. Assessing Accelerated Science for African-American and Hispanic Students in Elementary and Junior High School; Johnson, Michael A; pgs. 267-282. Also see the film: Stand and Deliver which features the great mathematics education work of Jamie Escalante.