Simply put...They're not safe.
The horrific realization that school safety is an illusion.
I started writing this piece with the intention of shining a light on the institutional stigmas attached to young Black males, unfairly, by school systems. After sharing the experiences that my son and I had, I realize that there is a bigger, more horrifying theme running through, our and so many other interactions with the local school district. I realized that our children are no safer at school than they are on a street corner after dark, simply because district policy ties the hands of administrators.
On October 26th at approximately 10:30am, I received a call from a School Resource Officer (SRO) informing me that my son had been "attacked" by a girl in class, was injured and I may need to come to the school. I received a second call from the Assistant Principal urging me to pick my son up because his wounds were "open and the school is not the cleanest place." Upon my arrival, I discovered a fully outlined, broken skin bite mark on his back among a multitude of other scratches/gashes on his arms, shoulders and back. We are taken into a back office conference room, the SROs are called and we are joined by both Prinicpals.
Before we can even start talking about what happened with my son, I get a text from my high schooler who attends the same school. Of my six children, four are at this school; two in Junior High and two in Senior High. The two sides share SROs because they are in the same building. My oldest boy is texting me to ask if his brother got "beat up by a girl" earlier. He had walked past one of the SROs and heard him gossiping with a high school teacher about my son, his little brother "getting done real bad by the new girl" in class by name. I immediately ask the officer what part of his job entails him poking fun at my son not hitting a girl, even in defense of himself. He deflects back to the fight that occurred but uh-uh sir...asking again what part of his job was he fulfilling by telling my son's business. I had hit the right button because I was met with the 'If you're not going to listen to me then I'll leave" spiel which was met with the same question I'd asked that had not been answered.
Once only the relevant people remained in the room, I began to inquire about the other student and was met with the privacy statement that meant I would learn nothing. I again asked about pressing charges and was told that it was very hard to prosecute juveniles in this county but that I could try after mediation at the school. The following account is based on what my baby, his friends and the SRO told me. Be advised that I am raising my four Black men to be the first line of defense for Black women, known and unknown to them. I chewed him a new arsehole about calling the young lady out of her name, regardless of what she said to him.
As the class was transitioning, J says he was kicked by a girl he had just broken up with. He said something ugly to her. The other young lady took issue with how he spoke to the first girl and spoke up. J called her a "bitch". At that point she jerked his arm and shoved him. He tugged her hair and shoved her away and told her to leave him alone because he can't hit girls. She came at him again, this time grabbing both arms and shoving him backwards into the doorframe. At that point, J gets angry and shoves her, hard, into the desks, again telling her to stop because he doesn't hit girls. As he turns to walk away she comes at him again jumping on him, clawing and scratching his skin. He picks her up over his shoulder to, in his words, "throw her away from me so I could get out [sic] the door" and feels her biting him through his hoodie and they fall to the floor with her wrapped around his back. There were several expletives being thrown around. At this point, the SROs enter and separate the two with my son being taken immediately to the nurse's office and me being called.
It's a lot right? You are probably wondering where the teacher was in all of this. He was there. Right there, but this particular "teacher" has a history of exercising his right to not involve himself physically in fights and such. More on that later. Back in the office, I am asking why the young lady is still at school and what is going to happen to her. I am assured by the Assistant Principal that the young lady will be "handled accordingly" and that they are taking this as seriously as I am. I had no idea how wrong I was to trust anything that woman said. My son is a fighter with fast hands and a lack of quit, if you know what I mean. I have seen what he can do to someone bigger than him in a fit of rage. Because of that, I am sitting there with the school's officials, thanking the Universe that J is a good kid and knows how important it is to never strike a woman in anger nor with the intent to hurt her. I tell them exactly that and complain, again, about the "teacher" that stood by and watched my son try and fail to get away from the person hurting him. We leave that school thinking that this young lady will be suspended severely; that the school would move forward with J's safety in mind with regards to his assaulter. We come home, dress his wounds, call the pediatrician and talk to J about not being embarassed about doing what he was taught and not hurting the girl.
At a little after 4:00, buses have left the building and kids are on their way home, I receive a text message from the Assistant Principal listing a time for the mediation between the two students that they "encourage parents to attend" and containing a disciplinary referral for my son. I open the document and read the first two lines that say, in summary, that the referral is for his physical altercation "with a female student" and that he pulled her hair and called her a bitch. I am confused about what I just read and respond with a text that says "This reads as though my son accosted her unprovoked. That is not accurate." Around 4:15, I get a text from my sixth grader saying that the girl that hurt J is on the bus, staring at her and talking aggressively. Bee weighs less than 100 lbs. Not only did the school not require that the young lady be removed from the building, they put her on the bus with his little sister. My eldest daughter, their father and uncle met Bee on the bus stop and the young lady decided to ride to the next stop.
Concurrently, the Assistant Principal has called me and is attempting to explain why my son's disciplinary referral read the way that it did, first acknowledging that the "teacher" has been counseled by both Principals on more than one occasion regarding his lackadaisical attitude regarding the safety of several students past and present. I am told that it is his "right" to not intervene in physical situations, explaining that last year several teachers were accused of inappropriately touching students and though cleared, are leery of interacting with students physically. I ask if she thought that stance appropriate in situations where someone could be hurt. I wonder aloud what would have happened if the girl had decided to cut my son or worse. As unacceptable as that is, I would like to get to the referral. She reminds me that she said earlier that she had not concluded her investigation and upon its conclusion had determined those to be the facts. I ask about J's statement, rewritten in more detail at her request before we left the school. She says that what he wrote did not match the information she found from talking to the teacher and witnesses, despite having injuries consistent with his accounting of what happened. I go on to inquire as to who she could have spoken to, to have gotten such a different accounting. I am told that the "teacher did not see the kick or anything" and that both student's friends did not support his version. J had texted each of his classmates and asked them one question, at my request. He asked "What did you see happen today?" with no prompting and my full explanation that we are pursuing charges and his phone's messages could be evidence. Each of those replies told the same story, albeit from different perspectives. My son was not the agressor. After relaying this to her, I demand that she amend the referral as I do not want anything in my Black son's academic record that would indicate a penchant for violence against women. We can all act like I am crazy, but every mother knows what I mean and every Black mother understands how these kinds of infractions could have my son on the future rolls of someone's privately run prison, as though that one incident is a deciding factor on the kind of Black man he will be.
She refuses and is acting confused about why I am shrieking through the phone. I ask her if she considered that J has a little sister that would be on the same bus with this girl. She sound uncomfortable but offers a quick apology for not realizing. I tell her that I do not want to disrespect her in any way but feel that she worded that document incorrectly, is not doing her job to keep my kids safe and her refusal to acknowledge that is a problem for me, disconnecting the call.
I am incensed at this point. How dare they take the word of someone known to not care about the kids in his class? Let me tell you about this particular teacher. Three years ago, my eldest was in this class and witnessed a fight between two male students that went on for "a good minute" ending with one boy hurt on the floor. The teacher called an SRO and relayed, in front of the class, that he needed assistance because ______ "had just gotten the shit kicked out of him." Two years ago, my eldest daughter was being bullied in this teacher's class. She went to him repeatedly and he did nothing. One day, she fought back and the two girls ended up rolling across this teacher's desk in a knock-down-drag-out fight and his response was to tell the class they should stop them because "he wassn't dealing with it," before leaving them, fighting, in the classroom. That same week, that same teacher was so embroiled in his phone that J was able to not only climb to the top of something very high but also, fall off of it, head first. The fact that this middle-aged white man is in a low-income predominately Black school and is openly disinterested in their successes is a different conversation. His lack of effort in the school is a poorly-kept open secret.
Let me say, I am in awe of people that spend their lives not being paid enough to shape the hearts, minds and worldviews of the people that will eventually be running things. I know that teachers do not get enough support or respect for how vital they are to this world. My children are taught to give their teachers the same respect that they are expected to give their parents. Not the reverence, the respect. They know that to earn someone's respect you must show them the appropriate respect and to take care of that connection, if it adds to their lives. I do not expect teachers to run headlong into danger nor do I expect them to sacrifice themselves as though they don't have families of their own. What I do expect, is that these people that trained to work with children, took a job to teach children even send their own children to fellow teachers do their level best to keep my kid safe when they are with them. That is a consistent missing piece in this particular situation, though not the only giant, blinking red flag.
It's been two days and J has served his suspension. The appointment for the mediation led by the Principals was fruitless as the other student nor her parent showed up. J had a good day at school and I'd heard nothing about the incident. My eldest son got here a few hours ago with news. The girl that had assaulted my son days earlier was new. In fact, Tuesday was her first day there. By this afternoon, she and her mother had gotten into yet another fight with several other eighth grade girls. This time, her mother cut those girls with some kind of blade. I was told that the police were called, but did not arrive before the girl and her mother had left the scene. As far as I know, those victims and their parents are just as in the dark as I am about what to do to get some kind of justice for their children. More importantly, I am sure that we are all wondering how in the hell we are supposed to feel comfortable with any of our children being in that building with this person that, clearly, has no problem hurting someone else? How are the teachers supposed to feel safe to teach this child when her mother is capable of the same type of violent response?
So here we are. Bullying is an emotionally invocative buzzword that does and does not encompass the intricacies of abuses kids can suffer at school; in my case, the only place my kids ever are without me, besides home. This situation most definitely would not qualify as bullying, but the fear and psychological trauma exists all the same. According to National Voices for Equality, Education and Enlightenment (NVEEE), approximately 160,000 kids skip school days because they are afraid of being hurt (https://www.nveee.org/statistics/). We made it through a pandemic healthy, safe, fed, sheltered. The kids are not allowed to roam the neighborhood, hang out after dark or be any place without our knowledge. We do all of those things to keep our brood safe, trusting that the one place we aren't but they have to be, is a safe place. Our school district's Expulsion policy is muddled and overly-complicated. It is designed to give the offender every available chance to correct their behavior. I commend that approach as it works well in parenting netting long lasting improved results. Being able to recognize when a situation falls outside the purview of the parameters that have been set is the most vital aspect of student safety yet tragically seems to be absent from the conversation. When do the suspensions and mediations become a band-aid on a gaping wound? How does an educator stand more steadfastly on policies than principle when those policies endanger staff and students alike? Had the educators, SROs and other school staff reacted more quickly or doled out a more severe punishment to the girl that hurt my son, would the other children hurt by her and her mother be unharmed today?
We can never be certain that any of us will make it through each day completely unscathed, but I will not feel safe to allow my children back into a school that has not figured out how best to keep them safe. I have questions and need answers that include action steps. What happened to us, what is being swept under the rug at this school is dangerously unacceptable and indicative of a more systemic problem within the district. The teachers that speak, do so under a cloud of terrified anonimity and that makes that red flag blink.