The Capital Times published my editorial below on March 12, 2019. I then posted the article on my FB page the same day. This terrible, awful and destructive generational disease didn’t get nearly the same rise out of people as me imploring our children and young adults to use more empowering language when advocating for themselves, and avoid cursing at school board members and staff in our public schools.
Over the last few days since I voiced my concerns about the poor language being used towards adults by our children and youth in our public schools (and at several school board meetings), I have received mostly positive feedback. However, I have also read comments by people who feel my concern about our children’s poor use of language is overstated, misguided and disrespectful.
Worse, I was referred to as a man who practices “respectability politics” and a “Black leader” who has “turned his back” on Black children and who “can no longer hear this voice [of Black youth], can no longer hear the concerns of the masses, can no longer concern [myself] with Black, often low-income, and poor people because [they] are not speaking the way [I] want them to speak?” It was interesting reading this from people who clearly know very little if anything about me or my work, but whose children have directly benefited from years of my advocacy, and from specific programs I created or pushed to have established.
But let’s address the Police Officer in Schools issue first.
Over the last year-plus, our school districts leadership and Board of Education have been focused on whether or not they should renew their contract with the Madison Police Department and continue having police officers stationed in our public high schools. To gain a deeper understanding this issue, I talked with Madison parents, and students and teachers in our public schools about their opinions about having police officers in schools. I also talked with three of the four Educational Resource Officers (EROs) stationed at our four comprehensive public high schools about who they are and what their jobs entail. During our conversations, I learned that none of the people arguing for their displacement from our schools have never reached out to or sat down with these officers to learn about what they actually do in our schools. All four EROs are people of color. One is a Latina female and three are African American males.
Of the three that shared their personal stories with me, I learned that all of them (including the ERO at Memorial who I have not yet talked with) have come from challenging backgrounds that have enabled them to relate to our children, and are reasons why they are so driven to help our most vulnerable and challenged young people to succeed.
All four officers applied for their current positions within the Madison Police Department because they a very serious about wanting to help our children succeed and “prevent” them from entering our criminal justice system. All stressed concern that none of the organizations or leaders leading the fight against their being in the schools have sat down to talk with them about what they actually do, or about the impact they are having with our children in their schools.
As men and women of color, these officers are disappointed that people are portraying them, their work and their efforts differently than what they actually do and experience every day. After hearing dozens of ways they are helping our children succeed and overcome obstacles, while keeping our schools safe, I can understand their concerns and impact at a deeper level now, too.
Before we began our conversation, I told each ERO that I initially was not supportive of the idea of having police officers in our schools, but I wanted to learn from them what they do, what they are seeing and experiencing on a daily basis, and what they think is needed for our children and schools before I formalized my position about their work and placement in our high schools. I left each conversation feeling grateful for these men and women and blessed that we have officers who care so deeply about our children, families and community.
After digging into the issues with them, I learned that they are preventing for more arrests than we would see if they were not in our schools and didn’t know school staff and our children. Each described how if a traditional beat cop was called into the school who didn’t know our students or the dynamics of our schools, that they wouldn’t take the time an ERO does to get know the students involved. They would figure out who did what, likely arrest the student(s), and take them to the Juvenile Reception/Detention Center (JRC – aka youth jail) for processing so they could get to their next call.
That said, I do understand why some of our young people and parents may still not want officers in our schools. However, there are also many who want them to remain in our schools. Moreover, I am deeply concerned that our school board has listened to hours of testimony but even many of them have not yet met or talked with these officers about their work and impact either. I hope going forward, that they do.
But the bigger point here is, we are spending hundreds of hours on the issue of having police in our high schools, while we are not spending much time at all addressing the fact that more than 85.8% of Black children (or 792 of 923 Black children in 3rd, 4th and 5th grade in 2017-18) cannot read at grade level in our public “elementary” schools. In fact, the majority (55.4% or 511 of 923) of these children read significantly below grade level. The definition for “significantly below (or aka “below basic”) means that the “student demonstrates minimal understanding of and ability to apply the knowledge and skills for their grade level that are associated with college content-readiness.” (Source: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction 2019).
WHAT IS UP WITH THIS? Why is our community going way over-the-top with its disgust and advocacy for police officers and issues that have little to do with how poorly our children are doing educationally in preschool through 5th grade? Why isn’t this the focus of our advocacy? Are we not aware that a young person’s educational success and attainment will dramatically reduce the likeliness that they ever will find themselves trapped in the bowels of our nation’s criminal justice system?
What are we doing and what are we advocating for that will actually move the needle educationally for our children? Protest the police if you want to, and protest loudly, but don’t scapegoat brothers like me who hold our children to a higher standard of personal and professional conduct (their profession, being a student), regardless of the circumstances they face, and who are actually focused on helping them succeed educationally in school. And please don’t tell our children that it is ok to curse out their teachers because they’ve been “marginalized” or “disrespected”. We aren’t helping them by enabling and excusing such behavior.
A teacher asking a student to get to class on time shouldn’t be told, “Fuck you bitch, don’t talk to me. Leave me alone.” I heard that one myself at West High School. I had to get up out of my chair to address these four young girls as I was talking with the ERO, Justin Creech, at West High School, about his job duties. When I walked into the hallway from Officer Creech’s office, I saw a group of four girls who look like my daughter directing their language at a white female teacher who was simply asking them to get to class. Class had started 10 minutes earlier. I confronted these young women about it and they apologized to me by saying, “My bad, My bad, I’m sorry.” I asked them to apologize to the teacher and they did. However, that teacher and Officer Creech told me that this happens all the time in the school because the children know they can get away with it. My daughter Alana who attends the school said she sees it happening all the time, too. I heard the same thing from Black and Latino teachers, staff and Principal Mike Hernandez at East High School after I had spoken up about this issue at the school board meeting on Monday. They said this disrespectful behavior towards adults is happening in our high schools every day. More than a handful of our students are engaged in this behavior, and its getting worse not better.
So, those who say they are fighting for justice for Black children, including my own, I have a few questions…
What is a greater “injustice”, having police officers present in our public high schools OR allowing thousands of Black children to fail academically in our elementary schools every year and show up to high school ill-prepared to succeed there? What are we doing to address the underlying root causes, and at the point of a child’s life where we can actually make the greatest positive impact on their growth, development and future outcomes?
What is the greater injustice, the proliferation of undereducated Black children in our public schools and communities, OR a police officer with a badge walking through the hallways of our public high schools?
What is the greater injustice, asking our children and young adults to be passionate in their advocacy for their causes but to please avoid using language that injures others, disempowers their messages, and distracts from others seeing their agenda, OR giving our children absolute permission to curse and swear at adults and do what they want because they’ve been hurt and marginalized?
It is depressing to see so little focus being placed on the areas where we need it most and where we can make the greatest difference now and the future.
And then, despite the fact that I have spent 30 years working to address these issues locally, nationally and internationally, while creating great opportunities for learning, career growth and college attainment for thousands of children in Madison, and many more across the USA, I am told by the orchestrators of these school board protests that because I spoke up about our children cursing at school board members during school board meetings, and about other children who are misbehaving in our schools and berating teachers and staff each day, that I have “turned my back” on “Black children”. Are we not supposed to hold our children accountable to treat adults and each other respectfully?
As the days and years go by, I am very worried and deeply troubled about the health, welfare and success of Black children in Madison. We are at risk of losing another generation of Black children to a legacy of poverty, depression, disenfranchisement and underperformance. Also, I am equally concerned about how quickly some people and organizations try to diminish the voices of Black men, and/or other people they see as outliers to their values and belief systems.
When I, as a Black father of five children – three adults and two adolescents, raise my concerns about the poor conduct of young men and women who look like me in our schools, and am called names because of it, I wonder with deep concern, why do the very people who profess to be about justice for Black people want Black men’s compliance and our silence on issues that matter to us, our children and our community? People complain about there being too few Black fathers present in the homes and lives of Black children. However, when Black men who are present and deeply committed to our families and young people speak up to address our concerns with our youth, we get dirt thrown on us by people who think that it’s ok to condone, promote and apologize for our young people’s negative behaviors.
We live in crazy times. But, I will not lower my expectations of our children (or adults). Not now. Not ever. Peace and Blessings. “Children are the reward of life.”