Commentary Race

Violence in Schools Is a Tragedy—and It’s Been a Systemic Part of Life for Black Students

William C. Anderson

In Black schools throughout the country, where the police state has implemented the "school-to-prison pipeline," violence has been the norm.

The word “accident” kept appearing in headlines when Courtlin Arrington was killed at Huffman High School on March 7 in Birmingham, Alabama. Though no one seemed to be sure what happened, the possibility that it was an accident circulated in reports. As it turns out, a fellow student shot Arrington while being reckless with a gun he’d brought to school. Her death did not provoke the wave of media attention and public response that the Parkland high school shooting had a month earlier, in Alabama’s neighboring state of Florida.

Some may attribute this to the fact there was only one fatality; others may argue that the shooter didn’t appear to intentionally cause harm. But we can never divorce race from anything in this country, because it affects everything. And violence in Black schools has not been engaged by the media with the same urgency as events that target predominantly white students. This violence extends beyond school shootings—in fact, it has become a systemic part of life for Black students across the United States.

In Black schools throughout the country, where the police state has implemented the “school-to-prison pipeline,” violence has been the norm. Knowing that Black people are wildly overrepresented in the prison population, it’s not surprising that our schools have been testing grounds for confinement. Carceral overreach has not restrained itself with regard to youth, who are precious and should be treated with care—precisely because they are indeed the future. But we can understand what sort of tomorrow our society deems fit for Black youth by looking at their treatment in predominantly Black schools.

I saw the effects of this firsthand in Birmingham, where I was a volunteer teacher several years back in many different schools. Not unlike the racial makeup of most of the schools I worked in, most of the students I interacted with daily were Black. In my service education classes, I taught students throughout the week about civic engagement, community, and volunteerism. I did all this with the hope that these students would feel empowered to go out and demand the better world they deserve. Though I loved doing this work, I was often disturbed by what I saw.

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Corporal punishment, which I didn’t even realize still happened in some schools, shocked me the first time I saw it. In one instance, a male teacher who was likely in his 50s rushed to paddle a teenage girl who was talking back to him. The class laughed while he grabbed her up and paddled her, hitting her while smirking; I was horrified. In the 2013-2014 school year, 19,000 students were paddled in Alabama public schools. Many parents approved of and agreed with the policy; only recently did school board members in the state recommend an end to the practice.

A few years earlier, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a federal class action lawsuit targeting the use of mace on children in Birmingham schools as a means of discipline. It argued that mace “violated the constitutional rights of Birmingham students through an abusive and unconstitutional policy that allows School Resource Officers to use chemical weapons against them.” In addition to the indiscriminate macing of anyone the school-based police officers felt like targeting—including disabled students and at least one pregnant student that I knew of who was a part of the lawsuit—I witnessed them otherwise brutalizing students. In the over-policed environment filled with cameras, metal detectors, armed officers, and some violent faculty members, students were treated as if they were only destined for confinement. This was vastly different than the environments in the predominantly white schools I grew up attending or even the ones I taught at.

Though no school is perfect, the normalcy of violence in schools has a color and it is black.

This violence transcends corporal punishment. The school-to-prison pipeline starts as early as preschool for Black children. Recent data from the U.S. Department of Education shows that Black preschool children are 3.6 times more likely than their white counterparts to receive out-of-school suspensions. During K-12, Black students are almost twice as likely as white students to be expelled from school and more than twice as likely to be disciplined through involvement of police officers. Black girls in particular are seven times more likely to be suspended and four times more likely to be arrested than white girls. Policing is a form of violence in and of itself, and exposing children to it as a regular form of discipline puts a burden on their ability to learn and grow. Instead of counselors and compassion, Black students get policing and abuse.

Further, we would be naive to think that if teachers are armed—an idea that has dominated the news cycle after the Parkland shooting—the violence would not disproportionately harm Black students. Teachers are capable of being abusive and violent, and we know this is regularly detrimental to Black people. Despite almost divine-feeling warnings in the form of recent accidental shootings by school officials, the conservative push to arm teachers has pressed forward in places like Florida and Alabama. Since police are more likely to kill Black people, and teachers are more likely to discipline Black students, it’s not an overreach to anticipate that when the inevitable happens and armed teachers begin killing their students at school, those students are more likely to be Black.

Though the trauma of the police state certainly affects everyone, and we need to make schools safer for all students, we can’t ignore how we’ve gotten to this point. Allowing violence to establish itself in some schools much more than others planted the seed for disaster to grow. Since education is especially over-policed and underfunded in conservative states (Alabama has one of the worst-performing public school systems in the country), the priority is certainly not on bettering students or keeping them safe. Students being surveilled while they attempt to learn isn’t schooling; it’s an exercise in condemnation. The tragedy of gun violence that some may have thought would remain quarantined in Black communities is now happening throughout the nation, and schools are becoming a place of concern for other parents who didn’t think they had to worry. In order to solve the problem, we have to reject systems that overpolice, underfund, and allow far too many incidents and “accidents.”

A nation with as much wealth as the United States should not have any underfunded schools when its military budget alone is enough to drastically reduce, if not eliminate poverty throughout the country and around the world. If this society, including its elected officials, were to begin thinking of violence and danger as byproducts of the institutional oppression intrinsic to the nation’s politics, we might begin to see a difference. Instead of communities, schools, and children being blamed for their circumstance, they should be given the resources they deserve.

Violence in places of learning is unacceptable, regardless of the source. We need a society that prioritizes Black life and well-being and doesn’t treat Black people, students or otherwise, as if they’re inferior. The achievement of something as liberating as recognized equality would work to the benefit of everyone. When we make fairness and compassion the standard, safety and peace for all will be the lesson we can pass down to the coming generations.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Courtlin Arrington, rest in peace.

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