As I point out in my second Breaking Barriers report (pdf), nationwide, 26 percent of black students report passing through metal detectors when entering school compared with 5.4 percent of white students. At the same time, black students are significantly more likely to feel unsafe at their school, and less likely to perceive empathy and respect from their teachers. Many black students are stuck in educational systems that operate more like correctional facilities and less like institutions of learning. The idea that black kids need to get a “boot in the butt” before receiving a book in the hand is responsible for many gross injustices committed against black students in their quest for a quality education.
Unfortunately, many in the black community passively accept the idea that black children, particularly black males, are more prone to violence and require tougher safety measures to ensure that criminal elements from their neighborhoods do not corrupt the school environment. However, my research, which I will explain later, clearly demonstrates that establishing a school on a foundation of security has unintended consequences. If black people are ever to challenge the “school-to-prison pipeline,” we must first challenge our own negative perceptions about black students, their parents and their communities.
One of the most well-publicized strategies to deal with school violence came from the 1989 film Lean on Me, which chronicled the experiences of New Jersey high-school principal Joe Clark, played by Morgan Freeman. In the movie, Clark rounds up and expels the bad kids, and restores order to the school by monitoring the halls with a baseball bat and locking the entrance. His character was based on a real-life principal who eventually became the head of a juvenile correctional facility.
Years later in 1995, the movie Dangerous Minds gave naive liberals and callous conservatives another peephole into the experience of a real-life change-maker. The movie was based on the autobiography My Posse Don’t Do Homework, written by a former U.S. Marine who became a high-school teacher. Both of these movies present a Hollywood caricature of inner-city high-school students, and idealize correctional or military-style interventions to deal with inner-city schools.
Creating More Opportunities for Black Students
“How do we create more opportunities for students to talk to their teachers?” This is a question that a black, male middle-school student asked me in front of about 300 of his peers at a school assembly.
A volunteer at the school who admired my research had invited me to be a guest speaker. I had equal admiration for the volunteer so I came to the school at his last-minute request. Upon my arrival the volunteer introduced me to the principal and a teacher, who cautioned me about the unruly dispositions of the students. “Most of our students receive free lunch,” the teacher stated with a curious degree of consternation.
When the students entered the assembly I told them, “I’m less interested in talking to you, and more interested in hearing from you. Therefore, I’m going to keep my comments brief and open up the floor to your questions and comments.”
After I opened the floor to questions, the slow-to-warm students quickly began to get involved, asking questions about my experiences as a teen, as well as questions about school life in general. One of the students recited a poem.
Overall, I was impressed by the students’ inquiries, as they showed humor, candor, insight and intelligence. This is why I was dumbfounded at the conclusion of the assembly when the principal chastised the students for not asking any questions about Howard University. His parting words to the young men were, “From now on, we’re instituting a ‘zero-tolerance policy’ for sagging pants … so tell your mama if she sends you to school without a belt, we’re sending you right back home!”