Tag Archives: black lives matter

Divided Baltimore: How Did We Get Here, Where Do We Go?

The University of Baltimore is doing a course that is open to students, faculty, and the entire community to understand the issues that Baltimore faces. Called Divided Baltimore, the course addresses issues of race, housing, healthcare, education, and criminal justice. Each week a panel speaks to the class and they engage in an open dialogue about the problems that the city faces. You can read and hear more about it here. I spoke in this class on October 5th, 2015 on desegregation in schools.

What is the alternative to police in schools?

South carolina officerThe story of a white school police officer attacking a black student in South Carolina horrified and shocked  people when it went public. Some had no idea that there were police in schools, while others thought that this use of force was extreme. The incident involved a high school student using a cell phone in class. When she was asked to put it away, she didn’t, and the teacher asked her to leave the room, a command that the student also  refused. A school safety officer was called in and he attacked the girl when she would not get out of her chair. Since we have a video of the incident, we can see the physical attack on the student. It is a jaw-dropping assault on a black teen. There is no excuse for using this level of force on a young person who did not want to put away a cell phone.

However, despite the use of physical force, the situation actually shows weakness on the part of the teacher and the school. The teacher saw the student not obeying her rules as a signal of disrespect, and her response was to demonstrate the power of the school’s authority, and to put the student her place. This response, resorting to calling in school safety orders when students refuse to comply, demonstrates that the teacher had no relationship with the students in the classroom in the first place. Teachers resort to this behavior when they perceive they have no other alternative. By calling in the school police, the teacher admits that she has no connection with the student, that she is not interested in connecting with the student, and has no tools for connecting with students. Thus, in the end, the student will end with even less respect for the teacher than before the incident began.

What complicates this case is that it is a white police officer exerting power and authority over a young  black person. Not only is this an echo of what happens outside the school building between police and youth of color, but it is an example of the disproportionately severe discipline that black students endure in schools every day, putting them often on the school-to-prison pipeline.

The school safety officer has been fired, but that will not address the problem. The presence of school safety officers, calling them in to address “infractions” by students, and then the use of extreme force is the problem.  Schools need to reconsider how they work with students, and what their goal is with them. If the goal is to get students to understand their place in society and teach them obedience and deference to power, then the South Carolina school was doing exactly right. But, if the goal of the school is to educate the students and to prepare them for their adult lives, then students need to trust the teachers and teachers need to have relationship-building at the center of their work. If they have that as a central practice, then they will be dealing with these incidents in radically different ways. The teacher would have known and understood why the student wanted her phone out in class. They may have had some class agreements that they could refer to in a discussion. Also, the class could even engage in a restorative circle where the class discusses the incident and resolves the conflict as a class community.

Restorative practices are not new, but are an important component to how schools need to reimagine their work to improve the climate in them. The National School Climate Center suggests that schools attend to the social and emotional needs of students, and teach them the ethical and civic components of learning. They have a whole set of recommended practices and toolkits for school staffs.

Getting schools to use these practices involves a paradigm shift. A shift away from authoritarian practices in which hierarchies are adhered to and strict rules make the tiniest infraction a major event toward practices where there is structure but also care, healing, and restoration. The Dignity in Schools Campaign has worked diligently to campaign for this kind of paradigm shift and has had successes across the country, showing that there is an interest but the campaign continues because there is still resistance to making schools places that value all young people.

A lesson in civics: What can we learn from the Baltimore youth sit in?

On October 14, 2015, high school and college aged students went to a hearing at City Hall in Baltimore. The goal of the hearing was to install the interim police commissioner in a permanent post in the city. City hall hearings can be long and boring, and so why did this group of young people decide to go to the meeting?

Sit in at city hall

    In April, Freddie Gray, a black man living in Baltimore, was killed by police. The protests that followed his death have awakened a new group of youth to modes of civic participation that they had not been involved in before. While there has been a long history of civic engagement and participation from youth, especially young people of color, from lunch counter sit ins to demonstrations to watchdog journalism, there is a new group of young people in Baltimore getting involved in issues of the day.

Today in Baltimore, one of the most important issue to young people, one that they are willing to risk arrest for, is the issue of policy brutality. Black communities have been the victims of police brutality in many cities, including Baltimore, over many years, but the Freddie Gray case was a turning point. Young people have formed groups at their schools and coalitions across the city, without adult leadership, to have their voices heard on police brutality.

At the October 14th hearing, they went not only to listen, but to be heard. The emotions from the spring protests are still very raw. The city and the police department have done very little to address the anger that people have over police brutality. Protests continued this fall as the pre-trial hearings for the police in the Gray case began. Again and again, young people are saying that they want reforms in the police department, to have their side of the story heard, and to see justice in police brutality cases.

Adults have failed them. The mayor, the police commissioner, city council, the governor, and the state legislature. None of them have been able to adequately address police brutality and to bring justice to consistent attacks on Baltimore’s black community. Recently, a video surfaced of a police officer spitting on a suspect. This only confirmed what young people have been saying, that the police have no respect for the black community.

So, on Thursday night, October 14th, young people went to the hearing in city hall in Baltimore to say, once again, enough is enough. They had their voices heard by occupying the meeting, and police made arrests. Sixteen of them spent the night in jail. As they did this they were engaged in critical civic praxis.  According to Ginwright and Cammarota, Critical civic praxis is focused on the civic engagement of youth, and urban youth in particular. More specifically, it is a practice in which people are “engaged with ideas, social networks, and experiences that build individual and collective capacity to struggle for social justice” (Ginwright & Cammorata, 2007, p. 693) It acknowledges “structural constraints in communities, but also views young people as active participants in changing debilitative neighborhood conditions” (p. 693). Under critical civic praxis, people “critically assess social, political, and economic structures that uphold inequality and consider collective strategies for change that challenge injustice” (Kahne & Westheimer, 2004, p. 3). Once they identify structural inequity, they may develop strategies that put pressure on elected officials to respond and undo the structures that continue inequality.

Some may view these young people as angry and without a plan. Adults usually say that about young people who protest, but these young folks do have a plan. They demand police reform including an end to the use of riot gear by police, police accountability measures, and $27 million for community schools which would provide low income communities with the services that they need to support them, like day care, healthcare, food pantries, and recreation. They cannot be easily dismissed as young people that are simply emotional; these are thoughtful demands that demonstrate that they have thought critically and are willing to engage fully in the praxis to demand justice for themselves and their communities.

Talking about the fight for schools in West Baltimore

2015-10-01 14.12.58

These are the folks I was with yesterday talking about schools in Baltimore at the Imagining America conference. This year the conference was held in Baltimore, and our panel, featuring Dayvon Love from Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, Helen Atkinson from the Teachers Democracy Project, and George Mitchell from the Park Heights neighborhood association and Langston Hughes Elementary School.

Our conversation was about the ways in which decisions were made to keep certain schools open and to close others in Baltimore. Twenty-six schools were slated for closure under something called the 21st century plan which is a plan to renovate some schools in Baltimore. The agreement, which was made with the state legislature, provided funds for school reconstruction if the district agreed to “right size” itself, which meant school closures. Even though school closure has a negative impact on communities, the city agreed– the positives outweighed the negatives for them.

Hearing the story of Langston Hughes Elementary school’s closure, however, sheds light on the plan for closure. As George Mitchell reported, the plan for closure was riddled with problems. The school was small, but served Park Heights, a low income black neighborhood, well. It was higher performing than other schools in the area and had a thriving after school program for children. The school was also in a renovated building which had technology, air-conditioning, and a facility that would rival any school serving a more affluent community. So why close the school? Charter operators had their sights on the location for one of their schools. Mitchell started getting calls two years ago and continues to get calls about turning over the school to private operators. He and others have tried to fight the closing, but once the city announced the list of school closures, parents began to pull their children out of the school, causing it to have declining enrollment and weakening their case to keep the school open. Many people started to see the closing as inevitable and even elected officials withdrew support from the school.

Children who attended Langston Hughes are now going a mile down the road to Pimlico Elementary, a school built in 1910 without the air conditioning, technology, and modern facilities. They have a bus to transport them there, but the research tells us that the children will face other problems integrating into the new school. Anecdotal reports have confirmed that the children are not fitting in at the school and struggling academically. Some parents have pulled their children out of that school  as a result.

What does this mean for Baltimore? For urban schools? The Langston Hughes story is one which tells us that the improvement of urban schools is not always about looking at genuine successes and building upon them, but deal-making. The closure of Langston Hughes was agreed upon by city and state officials long ago. The success of the school and the broad support that it had in the community meant very little to those folks. Their plans were made. However, this does not mean that all is lost in Baltimore or in urban schools, it means that the resistance to these plans needs to be more forceful. Plans to close Dyett High School in Chicago were finally abandoned because of a group of supported that launched a hunger strike for that school. They built a broad coalition, got a lot of media attention, and forced the city to compromise. Those will be the kinds of actions that teachers, parents, students, and community members will need to take in order to resist plans for urban school improvement that are guided by interests outside of low income communities of color.

Where are our priorities: How can we make black lives matter?


On Tuesday, May 26, 2015, about 40 protesters led by Reverend Jamal Bryant temporarily halted traffic entering the city on I-395 which is a major thoroughfare coming into the city of Baltimore. The demonstration was in opposition to Governor Larry Hogan’s recent decision to allocate $30 million to a new youth prison instead of public schooling. The new prison is meant to provide a separate detention center for youth charged as adults, who are mainly black youth, instead of a shared facility with incarcerated adults.

Proponents of Hogan’s decision say that positive programs and opportunities would be available to youth in the new center. Mark Vernarelli of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services states, “the department is committed to housing juveniles charged as adults in a new building that will include classrooms, program space, and medical and recreation areas. It’s a facility that’s vastly superior to the current location.”

Governor Larry Hogan’s decision only addresses a long standing complaint that youth offenders are sentenced to prison with adults. While that is certainly a problem, putting youth in very dangerous situations, it does not tackle the systemic problems that impact our society. It does not interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline which sends youth of color into the criminal justice system in the first place. This is an example where black lives do not matter in the eyes of the system. They do not matter enough to provide education instead of incarceration.

It would be easy to make Larry Hogan a target, and blame him for these problems, but they are long standing. His decision reflects a legislature and a larger society that does not demand broader solutions to the problem of youth offenders, when the youth are people of color. The protests today bring attention to Hogan’s decision and raise awareness of the misplaced funds. The inconvenience of stopped traffic during rush hour is nothing compared to the problems faced by young people of color whose educational futures get derailed as they enter the criminal justice system.

Simply listening to the demands made today will indicate what youth of color need: education funding, summer jobs, and recreation. If they have to stop traffic get people to wake up to that need, then businesses should be on alert: People will be late to work this summer!

To learn more, please visit the provided links within the text and below, and follow  activists on Twitter like @jamalhbryant.