They are stories that would make a parent quiver with fury.
This week, there were reports about a child being forced to kneel in apology because he had been working on an unauthorized assignment during class.
Earlier this month, a kindergartener was told to take his feces out of a toilet with his bare hands as a lesson not to clog it.
Both children were Black boys.
While the punishments were meted out in distant states, concern about how and when discipline is dispensed to minority students is widespread.
Here in Pinellas County, word of an updated agreement between the school district and 13 area law enforcement agencies has galvanized Black parents, advocates and allies. The proposed agreement drew attention when it appeared on the school board’s Jan. 12 agenda, though it was pulled before the meeting.
Caprice Edmond, the school board’s only Black member, told me she had been surprised to see the agreement on the agenda. She believes community input is vital. “That’s because I know we have a high rate of youth arrests and some of the information I researched was the school-to-prison pipeline in Pinellas. When children get arrested, it can be detrimental to their future,” she said.
“My experiences as a parent, teacher and a child advocate and being Black, all come into play when reviewing polices that impact our students and how we can improve them.”
At a time of intense national discussion about race, including attention focused on the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer charged in the murder of George Floyd, it is no surprise that the local Black community is demanding scrutiny of an agreement concerning interaction between law enforcement and their children.
It is known that Black boys are disciplined with greater frequency and more harshly than white boys, but attention is also now on how Black girls are treated.
The New York Times wrote a lengthy piece on Black girls last fall. The paper mentioned 6-year-old Kaia Rolle, who was escorted from her Orlando school, hands bound behind with zip ties, after she was reported to have had a temper tantrum. A 9-year-old California girl, the Times said, was kicked out of her Zoom class for sending too many messages. And a Michigan girl was dispatched to juvenile detention for not completing her online schoolwork.
Is it little wonder that Black parents are wary – no, terrified – of police interaction with their children? No one is saying that bad behavior is acceptable, but there must be sensible ways to handle it.
In a five-page letter requesting revisions to the proposed agreement between the Pinellas County School District and area law enforcement agencies, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund addressed the distrust of Black families.
“For years, the District’s Black families have expressed grave concerns about the interrogation of children at school without parental notice or consent,” the letter said. “This continued practice, despite District agreements and assurances to the contrary, has severely damaged the community’s trust.”
Furthermore, the NAACP law firm said it was “dismayed” that the district and law enforcement agencies had “quietly negotiated the proposed agreement without the input of parents and students and with scarcely any input from educators.”
Teaching for the Culture, “a movement to spark positive change” within the education system and that fights “for equity in education and justice for all students,” hosted a town hall on Policing in Pinellas Schools last Saturday.
The discussion was passionate. Among the panelists was April Cobb, chair of the Sunshine Education Coalition, which lists as one of its commitments, “promoting effective school discipline policies and interrupting the school-to-prison pipeline that primarily affects families of color.”
In answer to an audience question about micro aggressions and how to handle them, she mentioned that one of her twin sons is very observant and noticed the indifference with which he was treated in his classroom. That treatment became more glaring during virtual schooling, she said. Cobb advised parents to “bring voice” to concerns and to the attention of school staff and administrators.
Esther Eugene, president of the St. Petersburg NAACP Branch, puts it this way: “Parents just have to be active. They have to be unified,” she said. “They have to be engaged, be vocal, not only vocal, be loud as an advocate for the children.”
And for those parents burdened with just trying to make a living, amid a myriad of other concerns, Eugene added, “As a community, we have to stand in the gap for them. We just need to support them.”
Another version of the axiom “It takes a village.”
Eliseo Santana, who ran for Pinellas County Sheriff, noted that cultural and language difficulties are an obstacle for some Hispanic families trying to navigate the school system. He explained that first generation Hispanic children might react to someone in authority, such as a school resource officer, by lowering their eyes during a discussion. They’ve been taught that it is disrespectful to look authority figures in the eye, he said. But to an SRO, not making eye contact might be seen as an act of defiance and escalate a minor incident into something quite serious for a child, Santana said. He called for cultural training for SROs.
But back to the proposed agreement. In its letter to the school district, the Legal Defense Fund declared that the agreement as it stands “would be an abdication of the District’s promise to ensure that law enforcement does not supplant the critical role of educators in deploying developmentally appropriate, pedagogically sound interventions to student misbehavior.”
The NAACP lawyers want the district to revise the agreement and have submitted a number of suggestions for doing so.
So, what’s next? Edmond says the school district’s staff will review the comments and suggestions it receives. “They plan on providing updates to the community as well as board members,” she said, adding that no date has been set for when it will be back on the agenda.
Edmond said she understands that Pinellas County Schools Police Chief Luke Williams will provide updates to the community and that the agreement will be discussed at a school board workshop.
Eugene is most concerned about making sure that parents, the overall community and the NAACP are involved in discussions about the agreement.
It can only be hoped that the concerns of Black parents and their children will be fairly addressed. Sometimes, someone does listen. Remember the little Orlando girl who was hauled off from school with her hands zip tied behind her back? In Florida, there’s now the Kaia Rolle Act that requires police departments to establish a policy for arresting children under the age of 10.
Still, why does it seem incomprehensible that a child under 10 could be arrested?