By KELLY WICKHAM HURST
I have a sneaking suspicion that politicians and everyday citizens in this country have very little idea of what happens daily inside the walls of a school. That suspicion has been confirmed over the 23 years I spent as both a classroom teacher and then, later, as an administrator. That’s not necessarily a slam but the ways in which we collectively talk about what schools “should do” don’t often line up with the jobs we’re tasked with on a daily basis.
During this current, and very verbose, national discussion on school shootings after the massacre last week in Parkland, Florida there is immense pressure for a response. While it’s being spearheaded with the mostly white youth from the mostly white Broward county where a mostly white school is reeling from the murders of 17 of their classmates, it’s time we focused on the toxicity of whiteness and how race is playing out.
To fundamentally understand the history of this country one must look at race and the formation of policies and practices that continue to harm us all. Data tells us, consistently, that Black students are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of their white peers. Looking at this with an antiracist lens ensures that we can deal openly with the call for more gun control which may include the banning of some guns, with expecting guns to be regulated with insurance like we do our houses and cars and health, and with the most horrible idea uttered this week of arming classroom teachers.
Putting guns in the hands of educators is monumentally awful for all the reasons you can immediately think of but it’s wise of us to consider the words shared by Bree Newsome who tweeted, “This is by and large white America having a conversation with itself about preventing gun violence from penetrating affluent communities.”
There is already the disproportionate and overly aggressive disciplining of Black children in schools by administrators and violently by SROs who are positioned there. Like many people of color, I can immediately bring to mind racist teachers I had in high school so imagining them with a weapon is terrifying. As an administrator, I can attest to the biased discipline I witnessed that was harmful to Black students.
We’ve already seen a Black girl being dragged from a desk at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina when she refused to hand over her cell phone. The ensuing discussions revolved, sickly, around why people thought she deserved it. Adding guns to the mix for classroom teachers doesn’t inspire confidence. The Justice Policy Institute has already made a case against police in schools and many students from marginalized populations would be the first to agree with it based on their experiences.
There are a number of mostly Black schools in urban areas that are already equipped with metal detectors and we need to be considering that as well. They, too, deal with gun violence that looks different than the multiple school shootings that have taken place in our recent history. It’s interesting that this same call for gun control isn’t taking the national spotlight for Black students or children living in poverty.
Here’s what we have to consider: it’s already dangerous to be a Black person in America (to say nothing of Muslims or immigrants or Indigenous people who experience violence on levels that get relegated to local news) and the first person who came to my mind, after the suggestion by Trump that we arm teachers, was Philando Castile.
Let’s look back before we get to Philando: In May of 1967 there was a group from the Black Panther Party who entered the state Capitol in California armed with rifles and shotguns exercising their right to do so openly. This created wide panic as many white Americans feared that Black people would take up arms on a national scale. An Oakland GOP assemblyman, Don Mulford, moved swiftly to introduce a bill to strip all Californians of the right to openly carry. He, like many white people watching a group of people not originally included in the U.S. Constitution using the same logic of carrying guns, was intensely afraid of what would happen if Black people loved guns as much as they did.
Now Philando, you’ll remember, worked in a school and was beloved by much of the school. He was a legal gun owner who told a police officer that he did, in fact, have his weapon on him when he was stopped. Still, the officer used the time-honored excuse of “fearing for his life” while Philando, who’d previously been stopped 52 times, calmly explained “Sir, I have to tell you that I do have a firearm on me.”
The officer, if you recall, used his radio to report “The two occupants just look like people that were involved in a robbery. The driver looks more like one of our suspects, just because of the wide-set nose.”
Yet, Philando is exactly who might be armed in a school setting. He was already a gun owner and yet he was inexplicably shot in front of the 4-year-old daughter of his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, who filmed it.Black families know these protests won't lead to policies that protect them or their kids. Click To Tweet
I’m beyond glad that George and Amal Clooney, Oprah Winfrey, and others signed on to donate half a million dollars each to the organizing students from Parkland, Florida. Yet, there is another sneaking suspicion I have about this same kind of support for the Movement for Black Lives that was either absent or not at all on the same scale. Here’s the tough part: Black families know that the results of these protests (which won’t be described as “riots” like in Baltimore or Ferguson or a number of other places) will likely not be in policies that protect them or their children.
The suggestions for combatting these massacres have been to build schools as if combat would take place, inserting bullet-proof doors and metal detectors, arming teachers or hiring retired military personnel and all kinds of things that require an enormous amount of money. Where is this money when schools ask for fully funded institutions or when teachers reach into their own pockets to the tune of several hundred dollars per year? These magical, non-existent funds would be well spent on providing more trained teachers, support staff, social workers, school psychologists to say nothing of innovative technology for students and, you know, things we need to educate like curriculum and textbooks and other materials.Let’s reflect on the biases that teachers--80 % who are white--bring into public school systems daily. Click To Tweet
Even better, let’s investigate this toxic whiteness and reflect on the biases that the more than 80% white teachers bring into public school systems daily. It’s uncomfortable to ask, but how exactly will arming those who are supposed to educate children affect Black students given their racial bias? How long before a teacher feels the need to make use of Stand Your Ground while on a school campus? Let’s demonstrate evidence that we’re responding to the years of Office of Civil Rights data that shows us the disparities in the education of our Black children. Let’s put money there, too. This is a both/and situation. We don’t have to put our issues in a silo to deal with them separately. We can work on ensuring that, God forbid, teachers who would be required to be armed in school settings that the lens brings to mind that some of those teachers are Black and get shot disproportionately inside and outside the schools.
We should be thinking about supporting students who are being developmentally appropriate who also happen to be non-white and it should absolutely shame us when we criminalize them instead. Our schools need help with restorative justice practices, especially focusing on those who are non-white, because we’re not applying those practices with equity. Educators need to wonder why their white-Eurocentric curriculum has permeated lesson plans for decades after schools were integrated. We should all be wondering about the effects of Brown v Board and look into the history of thousands of Black teachers and principals who lost jobs due to the closings of their schools and what that did for the explosion of private schools during that part of our history. We should know that in our educational history some states closed their public schools for up to three years rather than educate Black children.
We have so much more than arming teachers with guns that need to be addressed in improving education in this country.
Let’s remember that having a wide-set nose might belong to a teacher tasked with educating children and that you’re putting Black educators in more danger when you suggest they carry a gun.
Kelly Wickham Hurst is the founder and CEO of Being Black at School. This piece was reprinted, with permission from Kelly’s post on MEDIUM.