Sherrilyn Ifill is the President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF)
In her one-woman show Notes from the Field, Anna Deavere Smith exposes the consequences of America’s abandonment of our most vulnerable and troubled children. She reveals that what is now known as the “school-to-prison pipeline” is, in fact, the sum of our failures to meet the needs of our children — in particular, children of color.
I found it brutally ironic that this show premiered on HBO just as the nation turned its attention to Parkland, Fla., where a 19-year-old living with mental illness went to his former high school and shot and killed 17 students and educators. More ironic still was that in response, the President of the United States called for teachers to be armed with high-powered weapons and floated to offer them “a little bit of a bonus” if they were willing to take up arms in the classroom. This would help schools become a “hardened target,” he said, using language peddled by the National Rifle Association.
What should have been dismissed within hours as madcap rambling by our president has instead become the subject of serious policy discussions. Within days, Donald Trump’s words began to shape public policy in Florida and in Washington. Perhaps it is the logical next step in our cruel abandonment of our children to the criminal justice system that we would contemplate meting out in the schoolhouse the ultimate punishment — death — at the hands of teachers. But it is also madness.
And make no mistake: Although the perpetrators of mass school shootings have been almost exclusively white, there’s little doubt that arming teachers will lead disproportionately to the killing — by teachers — of children of color.
The school-to-prison pipeline has been, without question, built on the foundation of racially discriminatory school discipline practices. Every study that has examined harsh school disciplinary policies has revealed that such policies are visited with greater frequency on children of color. In 2013, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a complaint challenging the practice of the Bryan Independent School District in Brazos County, Texas, of issuing Class C misdemeanor tickets to high school students for disrupting class or swearing; although black students constituted only 21% of the school population, 46% of the misdemeanor tickets were issued to African-American students. Similarly, the Department of Justice challenged the school discipline practices in Meridian, Mississippi, where the majority African-American high school sent its own kids to a juvenile detention facility over minor disciplinary incidents.
More broadly, African-American girls are 5.5 times more likely to be suspended from school than their white peers, according to the National Women’s Law Center, and 18% of African American boys received out-of-school suspensions versus only 5% of white boys, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education. Children as young as 5 or 6 years old have been handcuffed in schools and even arrested, which happened to a Miami boy who was led away from school in handcuffs after an altercation with a teacher earlier this year. The children subjected to this kind of harsh treatment are almost always children of color.
It does not take a great deal of imagination to contemplate instances in which armed teachers dealing with recalcitrant children will react out of fear and racial stereotype and discharge their weapons as they do the disciplinary code. Police officers — ostensibly trained in the use of firearms and the observation of criminal behavior — have shot and killed black children at an alarming rate, often citing their fear of the child or mistaken belief that the child was armed. They rarely, if ever, pay the consequences. We have every reason to believe that armed teachers will react similarly and keep their jobs with impunity. Just this past weekend, the Florida Senate is charging ahead with a proposal to arm teachers anyway — over the objections of Parkland victims’ families and students. More than two dozen black lawmakers, in particular, are keenly aware that letting educators pack heat is a “recipe for disaster.” They get it.
As I indicated to Anna Deveare Smith when we spoke for her film, the creation of the school-to-prison pipeline represents a societal choice to invest in the criminalization of children of color. The investments made — towards housing children in juvenile jails, trying them as adults for crimes and expanding our criminal justice system to process and cage those who have dropped out of school — come at the expense of other investments we could have made: in increased and robust mental health and social service interventions in our schools, in parental support and in early intervention for our most vulnerable children. The school-to-prison pipeline is not an inevitable pathway for children. It has been constructed from conscious policy choices made and carried out with the tacit understanding that the effects will be experienced almost exclusively by children of color.
This is why we cannot ignore the deranged suggestion that teachers carry weapons. It would have been beyond our imagination only a few decades ago to contemplate issuing criminal tickets to students for using foul language. Thirty years ago, students committing this kind of violation would have been sent to the vice principal’s office. But that was then. Today, we must forcefully and relentlessly resist calls for arming schoolteachers. Implicit and explicit bias against students of color resulting in the school-to-prison pipeline render the stakes of this moment too high to ignore.
In one of the most moving segments in Notes from the Field, a Native American tribal judge, Abby Abinanti, offers wise counsel for how we should deal with our most troubled children. She says that when children are damaged and break the rules, the path isn’t to push them away, but to draw them “closer.”
It appears that many fine teachers at Stoneman Douglas and in middle school attempted to do this for Nikolas Cruz over many years. We should explore why those interventions failed and invest in services that can effectively spot and treat a child demonstrating the dysfunctions that Cruz displayed from a very young age. To bring the child closer rather than push him or her to a cycle of more violence and self-destruction.
For the sake of other children on the verge of being pushed away, this moment should be a reckoning to think long and hard about what really works to help them, to keep all children safe. But to invest instead, as our president has insisted, in turning those teachers into armed guards patrolling our classrooms would be the final act of hostility and abandonment of our nation’s children. And we will know — from the outset — that the children who will be the foremost victims of this effort will be children of color.