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“Mis palabras” – perspectives on police brutality by a young writer

28 Oct

This is a guest post by a high school student in Seattle, describing how police arrested her partner with guns drawn outside her school.  She reflects on this incident in the context of recent waves of police brutality and anti-Black violence in Ferguson and across the country.  

Mis palabras

I have come to an ending point in life on how everything is and has changed. I remember when I was younger, I used to want to be a cop, but now we all don’t like them. Why? Because they are not doing their job.

How are they not doing their jobs? This is how. They go out shooting people for no reason, For example Mike Brown got shot. I feel like it was because he was a black male. To the cops all black people are bad, so if you’re black and you make a mistake, you’re going to deal with them.

Also Trayvon Martin got shot for no reason and police did nothing to the guy who shot him. Who has more say? A black kid or a white guy, of course we all know the answer to that. I feel that police are going around doing this because they think they are better than anyone. Bet you if they take the badge off they would be everyday people like us.

Recently Vonderrit Myers was shot in St. Louis because someone had called the police and told them he had a gun. Once again, he had no weapon. He was just going to buy a sandwich and he purchased it. Another life taken for no real harmful reason, all because they thought to see a gun.

In Louisiana, a 22 year old man named Victor White was arrested, handcuffed behind his back and put in a police car. The police said that he shot himself in the back while he was handcuffed. In the final review of the body, they had said that the gun shot went through the front of his chest, not the back. The police had tried to hide that they had shot him. We won’t know the truth I am guessing, they can say something but the police will be the only ones to know, right?

All of them are black males. To me its discrimination. It makes me think what if I was black would I be walking around scared to get shot, to be worried about my every move, not able to feel safe in my own community? We have cops going around thinking they can just come and shoot people and make it seem like they’re the good guys, that they did it because of danger. No, that’s not right. Can I come in any police’s face and feel like I’m in danger and shoot them, will I have a word to say I was in danger and get away with it? I don’t think so….

Something just happened in my school, a place where I felt safe and we are supposed to feel safe to come. It is no longer a safe place for me. They took some one I care for, my partner, my best friend. The way they took him was the worst. I won’t be able to forget that they had cops everywhere, guns pointing at him. And I bet you they did all this because they thought he had a gun too because he is black, because they felt danger. He is a young man that had done nothing wrong. To come to my school and arrest him in that way… I think to myself every night what if it was his life next? What if they would have shot him just because he was black? That’s what it’s all about now in my opinion.

When I’m alone, I always think to myself what would the world be without the cops? Would it be better or would it get worse? In my opinion, I think it would be better because I can do a better job than they do. I would be able to keep my community a safe place, making sure I don’t discriminate based on your color. I sit back and think how it was back in the day when slavery was happening, how black people had no rights to defend themselves. Is it happening again? Are we going back to something that was worked so hard on to have black people be safe and have rights?

By: Katherin Arana

Don’t deport our students; classrooms should be sanctuaries

29 May

A few years ago, one of my students told me something that made me furious at the U.S. government: she said she was afraid to come to school because she thought ICE might show up in the classroom to deport her.  We strategized together about what to do if this happens.

I was left outraged that we even had to have this conversation. The classroom should be a sanctuary where all students can learn, without having to worry about being kidnapped by the state and removed from their families and communities.

This was just as heartbreaking as when another student asked me if you need to purchase a password in order to become an American citizen, as if the United States is a VIP club that is simply too expensive for people from his community.

These kinds of situations are becoming increasingly common; students will come in to class depressed, worried their parents or siblings are about to be deported.  Many are from working class immigrant communities that are slated to be left out by all of the comprehensive immigration reform proposals tossed back and forth in Congress.  They are the ones the Democratic Party is willing to jettison and the Republicans are ready to demonize as the “bad immigrants”, not the good Dreamers.  Many of them have gotten entangled in the criminal justice system because of racial profiling or because they had to hustle to get by since they can’t access legal jobs.  They can’t afford college because of rising tuition.  They are marked as gang members simply because of the neighborhoods they live in.  When congresspeople talks about increasing security, they mean kicking out people like them.

But where are they supposed to go?  Many Mexican youth can’t find jobs in either the US or Mexico, and are facing violence in both places.  They are a generation that is getting squeezed out of both countries, and have nowhere to go unless they fight back.  They are the North American cohort of millennial youth, children of the economic crisis who are facing a precarious future.  This generation is rising up all over the world, from the Arab Spring to the migrant worker strikes and riots in China’s Pearl River Delta.

Many of the mainstream immigrant rights groups don’t want to take up their cases because it is seen as too difficult to convince the government that they “deserve” to stay.  But when I talk with them, I don’t see threats to national security, I see intelligent, caring, creative young people who are active in their communities and are trying to build lives here.

As a teacher, I feel blessed to be connected with undocumented activists who are developing innovative organizing strategies for stopping deportations.  The National Immigrant Youth Alliance is at the forefront of an emerging movement of undocumented folks who have been reuniting families torn apart by deportation, particularly through the recent Bring Them Home actions. 

If I weren’t connected with these folks I’d be depressed and helpless when my students share these stories.  But now I can suggest some ways they can build solidarity to stop deportations, and I know there are skilled activists who can support them in this, people who come from similar backgrounds and have faced their fears together.

For this reason, I strongly encourage readers to support NIYA’s current efforts to free four young people from immigration detention.  One of these youth was deported right from his high school classroom, and has been imprisoned in detention for 71 days after trying to cross back into the U.S.

As a history teacher, I often facilitate conversations among students about past social movements such as the civil rights movement and Chicano/Chicana labor struggles.  Students will debate whether or not things have gotten better since then.  I think that 40 years from now we will remember stories of students being deported from our classrooms and will see ICE’s practices as barbaric, analogous to the oppression communities of color faced before the 1960s.  But that will only happen if we all take action to prevent the state’s ability to kidnap, deport, and imprison youth today.

Bill Gates’ Pipelines to Hell: Reflections on the 2012 Education Policy Throwdown

10 Feb

On March 1, 2012, uplifted by the spirit of Occupy, a group of us picked a fight with the largest private foundation on the planet.   

Two years later, we are now facing the very real possibility that in addition to reproducing the education pipelines that lead to prison, precarious labor, or privilege, Bill Gates is encouraging his fellow billionaires to railroad highly explosive Bakken shale oil and Tar Sands bitumen through the middle of our city.

“The 99% Challenges the Gates Foundation to an Education Policy Throwdown”

Back in 2012, we challenged the education policy experts at the Gates Foundation to a street-style debate as part of a coordinated National Day of Action for Public Education.  (We even delivered a fancy engraved invitation .)

We joined together to protest the outsized influence that the Gates Foundation wields to push its neoliberal education model.  To our amazement, their staff actually came out to debate with us when about 300 or so of us descended on their palatial headquarters in Seattle.

 

Frankly, considering that this was their full time job, the Gates Foundation policy experts were woefully unimpressive in this General Assembly style interaction.  The parents and teachers in our crowd gave them quite a drubbing over some key issues that these “experts” are clearly getting wrong:

  • Standardized Testing and Teacher Pay – the Gates Foundation was (and still is) one of the major players in the push to tie teacher pay to standardized test results.  A member of the crowd (an editor at Rethinking Schools magazine) nailed them over the numerous studies that showed the volatility of test scores from year to year.  Teachers with stellar scores one year are painted as failures the next.  Gates Foundation experts sheepishly agreed.

  • Racist Origins of Standardized Testing  – Another participant stumped them completely by asking about the origin of standardized testing.  The Gates Foundation experts were not aware that the tools they promote were originally designed by the Eugenics movement to apply assembly line models to classrooms in attempt to prove the ‘genetic superiority’ of whites.   Standardized tests continue to do what they were designed to do — maintain a system of racially segregated education.

  • Charter Schools – the Gates Foundation was (and still is) one of the major players in the push to advance charter schools.  As we have pointed out repeatedly in words and actions, the public schools are failing youth of color and working class youth.  It is understandable that many parents, communities, and progressive teachers will want to build alternative schools that have some degree of autonomy – ability to develop their own curriculum, to set their own schedules, etc.  Many people start charter schools thinking that they will offer such freedom; Bill Gates, on the other hand, wants charters in order to help take capitalism to a whole new level.

The charter movement may have started with good intentions but it has rapidly become a tool of corporate privatization rather than a viable laboratory where new forms of teaching can blossom and spread throughout the public system.   Charter schools become just as bureaucratic and authoritarian as public schools – some even more so, because charter-ization often paves the way for military academies or militaristic, heavily disciplined forms of teaching.   Many charter schools have admissions requirements, which makes it easier for elitist schools to maintain class and race segregation; this can also lead to discrimination against students with disabilities, which federal public education legislation was designed to prevent (whether it actually does that effectively is another whole conversation, but charters can make it worse).

Many charters are non-union, which means their teachers are more stressed out due to longer hours and lower pay. This can make it harder for them to focus on building relationships with students.  It can also mean the teachers have less academic freedom and can be fired more easily for teaching something that the administration doesn’t like.

When Bill Gates and his foundation push for charter schools they are not pushing for the dream of parents and teachers who want to opt out of an oppressive public school system.  They are pushing for their own dream – a corporate controlled education system with fewer public roadblocks in the way of billionaires who want to fashion education to suit their own goals.

The crowd made these criticisms of charter schools perfectly clear to the Gates Foundation.

People over Experts

At the “Education Policy Throwdown” we learned firsthand that what these “experts” are doing is not driven by observation or science.  They are paid pseudo-scientists who are paid to go find facts that support the preconceived ideology of Bill Gates.   They manipulate public policy behind the scenes by selective funding of research and by creating an atmosphere where everyone in academia is afraid to point out that the 800-pound gorilla has no clothes.

We also learned that they are vulnerable.  When called out into the streets to actually explain themselves to the public that they foist these policies upon, the Gates Foundation is simply defenseless.  

Gates’ Policies Are Still a Train Wreck

So, what else have they gotten wrong regarding education?

  • Small Schools Initiative:  The Gates Foundation spent over $2B convincing school districts to break their large schools into smaller “academies”.  Gates later admitted that the results were “disappointing” AFTER districts spent their OWN capital dollars physically re-architecting their campuses around a rich guy’s baseless hunch.  (BTW, ask the folks at Seattle’s Cleveland High School about this one.)

  • Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project:  The Gates Foundation spent years trying to validate their preconceived belief that teacher effectiveness can be scientifically measured.   They were wrong.  According to the National Education Policy Center, their “…results do not settle disagreements about what makes an effective teacher and offer little guidance about how to design real-world teacher evaluation systems”.  (This study even won the NEPC’s 2013 Bunkum Awards, recognizing lowlights in educational research).

Bill Gates and his foundation get it wrong because their policies are based on the neoliberal belief that the most important dimension of a human being is their contribution to the economy.   This ingrained belief expresses itself in systems that make the role of education to simply prepare workers for the labor market.  

In fact, this is the explicitly stated goal of their post-secondary education program:  “Our goal — to ensure that all low-income young adults have affordable access to a quality postsecondary education that is tailored to their individual needs and educational goals and leads to timely completion of a degree or certificate with labor-market value.”

Bill Gates is also wrong because he is a hypocrite.  He brags about the quality of his own relevant and relationship-based education at Lakeside, yet funnels everyone else into the pipeline that creates worker bots.
Preach One Thing, Invest in Another

Hypocrisy, or something darker, must motivate the investment portfolio of the Gates Foundation.  According to an analysis of their 2012 tax returns by Mother Jones Magazine:

  • They preach nutrition, but invest billions in MacDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Burger King, etc.

  • They preach support for the working poor, but invest billions in Walmart

  • They preach about fighting climate change, but invest billions in fossil fuels like Exxon Mobile, Arch Coal, Peabody Coal, Baker Hughes, etc.

  • WORST OF ALL, they preach that they will not invest in companies with “egregious corporate activities”, but invest in private prison companies like GEO Group and G4S Corporation, which operates 19 juvenile prisons in the US.   (GEO Group publicly stated that their profits would suffer from “reductions in crime rates” that “could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences,” along with immigration reform and the decriminalization of drugs.)

The Gates Foundation directly profits from maintaining the School to Prison Pipeline and from maintaining the dysfunctional economic status quo.

However, as we have written about on this blog before — our struggle is not JUST against the School To Prison Pipeline, but against ALL of the pipelines that systemically strip people of power and possibilities.  The pipelines to prison, to precarious employment, to overworked technology labor, or even to the stressed managerial class* are ALL BAD for the people in them.  (*Note that suicide now kills more 40-60 year old white males than car accidents).

Next Target, Higher Education

Bill Gates and his foundation continue to build the pipelines that perpetuate privilege for some and prison for others. Their latest target is now the university system, which they seek to destroy and rebuild in their own techno-capitalist vision.

The Chronicle of Higher Education released a detailed report that sharply criticized their new approach, which they state is “designed for maximum measurability, delivered increasingly through technology, and…narrowly focused on equipping students for short-term employability.”

One structural change promoted by the Gates Foundation is the channeling of Federal Student Financial Aid toward schools that do not require ‘credit hours’, instead allowing students to demonstrate competency by completing online training.

According to the Chronicle’s report, the tremendous financial power wielded by the Gates Foundation creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within the administration of colleges and universities.   Few are willing to speak out against Gates’ vision of education as job preparation.  If schools follow this vision, we all lose the many other critical roles that colleges have played in society.  The university will no longer be a place for reflection on the meaning of human existence (or other such “non-productive” activities).

Automation and Education in the Era of Robots

The Gates Foundation goals are shaped by Gates’ plans for the next era of capitalist accumulation.  As Gates, Jeff Bezos at Amazon.com, and other tech company titans push for increasing automation of the workforce, more and more workers will be replaced by robots.  As this happens, society could be increasingly divided into new classes – those who own the robots, those who manage them, those who serve these two groups, and everyone else who is deemed a “surplus population” and targeted for mass incarceration and other forms of social destruction.

If this stratification proceeds, the corporate owners would need to reproduce it in the schools.  Since charter schools make the  education system more flexible, their presence might help speed up this process.   Gates and his technocrats might push for elite, holistic, creative schools for the future robot owners, heavy STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) schools for the future robot operators, discipline-based job training programs for the future servants, and prison-like schools for everyone else. Some teachers might become highly-paid professionals training the global elite and their programmers and engineers.  Others might become low-paid service industry workers who deploy automated “teacher-proof” online curriculum, punishing students who don’t pay attention to what Bill Gates wants them to see on the screen in front of them.   

The Gates Foundation is already deploying electronic bracelets on students’ arms that measure their arousal levels in the classroom;  they could use this data to help automate teaching, creating online and cybernetic technologies to replace teachers.  This might seem far-fetched, and it is admittedly decades away at least.  But the world we live in today would seem extremely far-fetched to early 20th century auto workers.  Little did they know that the time-study researchers watching them do their jobs would use this data to  replace them with robots.

Bill Gates Might Just  Blow Us All to Hell

Clearly Bill Gates has been wrong about many things before and will be again.

However, one his miscalculations may cause immediate searing and painful death to some and will likely accelerate the death of all of us through climate change.

You see, according to Forbes Magazine, Bill Gates is the person that convinced his friend Warren Buffet and his investment company, Berkshire Hathaway, to invest in Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) and Canadian Railway (CN).   

Bill is pretty clever, and he saw that all of that Tar Sands and Bakken Shale Oil might not be able to get to market in China, ESPECIALLY if the Keystone XL pipeline was not approved by the Obama administration.  So, Berkshire Hathaway invested heavily to increase the capacity of these rail systems so that they could carry more of these petroleum products.

The cruel irony is that last month, the State Department ruled that Keystone XL will have no impact on CO2 emissions because, even if it not approved, the oil/tar in the ground would get to the market anyways via the newly expanded rail capacity.   The result is that the staggering amounts of Canadian Tar Sands will now be strip-mined and sold overseas, accelerating the pace at which the planet will become a climate-ravaged hellscape.

The Gates Foundation holds more than $10B worth of Berkshire Hathaway.  They took a minimal risk in the railway investment — even though the rail lines may have profited more without Keystone XL, they win.  They can afford to take risks and lose a few.

 However, folks in the pathway of their rail cars filled with these highly explosive materials are not so lucky.  Perhaps Bill Gates should have educated himself on one of the key themes of Greek literature – Hubris.  His unwarranted self-confidence puts our schools, our communities, and our climate at extreme risk.   

Upcoming activities vs. the School to Prison Pipeline

7 Feb
Hi folks,
     The past few weeks we’ve been working with a coalition of people who are coming together to organize against the school -to-prison pipeline.  We have these activities coming up if you’d like to join us:
1)  We will be passing out flyers raising awareness  this Sat (Feb 8th),  11 AM in front of  Grocery Outlet in the Central District/ Africatown (1126 Martin Luther King Jr Way).
2) We will also be passing out flyers this Sun (Feb 9th), 11 AM in front of the Red Apple store on 23rd and Jackson.
3) On Thurs the 13th at 6:30 pm, Seattle Public School officials will be holding a public forum at Meany Middle School, 19th Ave E. and E. Thomas St.  We will be setting up the mock isolation booth outside that meeting and will be engaging parents and community members in discussion as they enter the meeting.
We are in the process of brainstorming further actions, outreach, and workshops – if you have suggestions or would like to participate, please hit us up at creativitynotcontrol@gmail.com
Here is the flyer we’ll be passing out: Destroy the School to Prison Pipeline

Workfare and Prisonfare (The School-to-Work and School-To-Prison Pipelines)

30 Jan

ImageHere is a guest post by Carol Issac, one of the people we have been collaborating with to organize workshops and actions against the school to prison pipeline.  She prepared the following research for the workshop we did on Martin Luther King Day, but she didn’t get a chance to present it because we ran out of time (there were a bunch of great presenters, and over 60 people participated).  Her research documents some of the bleak futures that await exploited youth these days; the pipelines that confine their lives begin in the classroom with averse discipline, isolation rooms, and disproportionate suspensions.  After a process of sorting by race, class, and gender, many of these pipelines end in forms of incarceration or state-controlled / criminalized labor. 

Workfare and Prisonfare 

In these times, there are two major forces whereby the government and the current ruling class punishes the poor.  In general, one method goes after the men and the other after the women.  Mass incarceration is also called “prisonfare”, and the replacement for welfare is called “workfare”.  They are two sides of the same coin.  While men are the primary target of mass incarceration, women, as single mothers, are the primary target of the major change in aid to the poor, the 1996 law that struck down welfare and replaced it with a work program.

We are not a nation that values solidarity, but we did, for a long time, legislate what could be called semi-compassionate social services to aid “the poor and handicapped”.  Since then, gradually during the last century, poverty changed from simply a human condition to something regarded as a moral problem.   Much of society now sees poverty as a failing of the individual, a manifestation of an irresponsible lifestyle.

There is still, however, a “deserving poor” who are a small and special subcategory somewhat worthy of charity but even they are not spoken of by society at large as “our brothers and sisters”.  The corporate media does little to point out our common connection with each other, so it is not an everyday part of the public thinking to feel more than a distant responsibility and assume we have some agency or such to take care of the “others”.  Solidarity is not a societal value here.  When compassion is its nearest common replacement even too much of that is suspect.  Instead of being “soft” we have come to prefer a strong response.  A virile warning is common, and too much charity is a weakness.  The “sting of necessity” is valued as a way to push the lazy to “get a job”.

Social service programs have been steadily reduced, especially since the ’70’s backlash, and those surviving are either inadequate or they are administered through a practice called “churning”, a term for the bureaucratic practice used by agency staffs that indicate the many little practices, tricks and harassments used to prevent a client from obtaining their rightful aid.

Where once we had a welfare program, in 1996 under Clinton that changed into a “workfare” program.  The title of the act applied was an insult in its very wording:  “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act”.   Its purpose was to wipe people off the welfare role, and into unskilled work under demeaning conditions.  Since it mainly took care of women, as single mothers, this program micro-manages poor women.  By the time this law went into effect, already every other poor household in America was not receiving the benefits for which it was eligible.  This was designed to punish the poor and make them accept their abject poverty as intransigent, i.e. the way things are.

To get even less income than they did previously, women now had to work instead at jobs chosen by the government that are too precarious and ill paid to offer security.  The programs vary per state, but, in general, they are for the lowest wages, do not provide child care assistance, or do so for less time than actually needed sometimes at distances that create great hardship.  The result is that this kind of employment is both risky and prohibitively costly for young mothers.  The unlivable income makes parents supplement with what they can get from their already fragile larger family networks and from the current precarious standby, illegal street commerce, all of which keeps pushing them deeper into poverty, the shadows, and powerlessness.  Some, in time, opt out and do things like give their children to family or friends who might be able take care of them while they go homeless alone.

Workfare policy does not aim to reduce poverty but to punish it. It carries an implied warning:  Even if you are working more and earning less, there is a fate worse, a status lower, than hard and unrewarding work:  homelessness.

In Washington, homelessness is not legally a reason to remove children from a parent; however, there was a precedent setting case in May 2013 wherein the prosecution, which was the state of Washington, got around its own law.  It  used homelessness, plus other less than stand-alone factors, to concoct a preponderance of circumstances that together were judged sufficient reason to remove a child from the custody of a parent permanently.  They created what can be pointed to now as a case that will bolster similar methods of decision making for cases in the future as though it were a piece of legislation decided by our Olympia lawmakers.

The poor seeking aid are routinely treated like offenders under criminal justice supervision.  The supervision is increasingly performed by private contracted businesses that do everything from mental health diagnosis and management, the client’s schedule management, transportation of children to and from visitation facilities when a parent’s rights are limited by court and a child is put into foster care, training for jobs that don’t exist or are precarious, or even for parenting skills that in some manner the state deems are appropriate and others are not.  All the while this is happening, the staff of these state and contracted organizations are acting like minders and writing up observations of the clients actions, words and perceived attitudes for the use by government agencies such as the courts.  Vetting of these agencies and staff for their adequacy appears unchallenged.

This past spring in a King County Superior Court courtroom one of these minders testified that she observed a client visiting with her own almost three year old when the mom was saying to the child, “Oh,___, some day I am going to get you a house and a car. …”  The state prosecutor, an assistant attorney general, used this testimony to illustrate how the mother was filling the child with non-credible expectations thus adding to the case that she was an unworthy mother. This went unchallenged in the judge’s lengthy decision.  The case had no jury, and the records were sealed, a common occurrence in cases involving juveniles.  This instance illustrates the level to which the micro-management is normalized, invisibl-ized, and seriously affects the minute details of the life of the poor.

While the social services are cut and made into tools that demean, there has been legislation that creates benefits for the class with wealth or the middle class.

The class that benefits most from social security and government protected pensions is the class that gets the best jobs.  Home owners, in general, get a break on taxes if they have a mortgage.  There are many benefits that are really a sliding scale of favors for those with more, while those with less become the recipients of less and less.

Sources:

“Punishing the Poor:  The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity”  by Loic Wacquant  2009  –  Professor Wacquant is at the University of California, Berkeley  and is a MacArthur Award Winner.

Observations of trials 2013

Workshop And March Tomorrow: Dismantling the School to Prison Pipeline

19 Jan
info graphic from SuspensionStories.com

info graphic from SuspensionStories.com

where:  Garfield High School, 400 23rd Ave, Seattle, WA 98122

when: Mon, Jan 20th, workshop from 9:30 – 11:00 AM

march begins at 12:30 –  if you want to march with us, we’ll be meeting right across the street from Ezell’s Chicken.

what: The workshop will expose and analyze how the system stratifies the population through a set of “pipelines”. While some students are channeled into futures in management and the professions, and some into a working class, however insecure, still others are left to expect the least opportunities plus the threat of incarceration in the largest prison system in history.

Teachers, students, former inmates, and activists, will share how this is all fitting into a pattern of especially insidious racism, as well as other forms of discrimination.

You are invited to discuss these perspectives, and your own, with us. We will also discuss how we can inform, agitate, and organize together, to undo and overcome this oppression.

This workshop is one of many that will be held as part of the larger, annual Martin Luther King Day event at Garfield High School.

We will be marching together in the larger march, with posters and chants against the school to prison pipeline.  Look out for us across from Ezells at 12:30 if you want to march with us.

A free-standing isolation booth, now banned in Oregon.  (Source: KATU News, posted on http://www.policestateusa.com)

A free-standing isolation booth, (Source: KATU News, posted on http://www.policestateusa.com)

One of the teachers speaking in the workshop is the author of this piece, about how she and her students turned the isolation room in their classroom into an art project.

Here is the Facebook event page for tomorrow.  Please invite your friends.

The workshop is being  organized by a really dynamic coalition of people, including  folks from Africatown/ More4Mann, some of the organizers of the Youth For Justice rally this summer, folks from Free Us All (the prison hunger strike support committee), artists/writers from  High Gods Entertainment, Creativity Not Control, and folks from Washington Incarceration Stops Here (the group organizing against the new juvenile detention center in Seattle.)

Check out the links for more information, and check out those groups or others if you’d like get involved in struggles against the school to prison pipeline here in Seattle. There are lots of ways to get involved, from organizing and fighting back,  to educating and creating art and music on the subject.  We’ll see you out there!

Caring Not Control

17 Nov

This is a guest post by our friend Lowell, an elementary school teacher in the Seattle metro region. She writes about how she and her students turned the isolation room in their classroom into an art project.  This is part of an ongoing series on isolation rooms and the school to prison pipeline. If you have experience with isolation rooms or aversive discipline in schools and would like to contribute, please contact us at CreativityNotControl AT gmail.com.

safe_space

artwork by a Justseeds artist

During the interview for my current position teaching students with emotional and behavioral difficulties, the interviewer asked if I was familiar with the practice of aversive discipline. I replied tentatively that I was aware of the term but not how it was applied in this particular setting. Immediately I felt uneasy with such language and what this topic meant for the day-to-day expectations of the position. Aversive discipline, she explained to me in a vague way, consists of physical restraints and the use of isolation rooms. I said yes I was familiar with such methods and understood them to be absolute last resorts when all other methods failed to protect the child and others nearby during a crisis.

The interview continued on to other topics. However, I remained unnerved by the concept of aversive discipline and its application in institutions. I thought to myself, why would something be deemed a ‘discipline’ technique if it truly is used as a last resort to ensure protection after all other methods had been exhausted? The term discipline implies repetition, a technique applied repeatedly to reduce unwanted behaviors. Discipline implies subjecting students to experiences that the adults involved know are undesirable, even painful in some way, to the children. Thoughts swirled around in my head during and after the interview- my experiences of children being further escalated and traumatized by such methods, research proving the damage caused by repeated application of this discipline, and the high percentages of students with disabilities being funneled from the education system directly into the prison system.

Despite my unsettling feeling that the district promotes the use of aversive discipline in its schools, I accepted the job.

Upon walking into my new classroom, I was faced with reality of my decision. I saw a bright red button next to a door that led to the isolation cell commonly referred to as the “time-out room.” I imagined all the fear and trauma that students associate with that room, students classified as socially and emotionally vulnerable, students with learning difficulties and layers of hardship stacked against them. I began asking around. Teachers in the school. Other EBC (emotional and behavioral classroom) teachers and para-professionals in the district. I wondered how other professionals viewed that room. Stories began to unravel. The teacher that came before me used the room almost daily, I learned. I heard stories that students were frequently told that if they did not comply with teacher prompts they would be sent to the time-out room. After hearing one para’s experience, I asked, “Do you think these methods worked?” He just laughed. If scaring children into compliance is considered working then maybe, he said. As I continued to listen, all I could think was that such discipline could only be successful in achieving one thing: it teaches children to be fearful of teachers, fearful of school, fearful of institutions and other authorities. It teaches them that if they do not comply with such authorities they will be locked up and isolated repeatedly.

I thought to myself: they should be scared.

In August, I met the families and youth that I’d be working with over the course of the year. Story after story, the students shared their experiences with the time-out room. They were scared of it and scared they’d be spending time in it again this coming year. I explained my philosophies and personal style. Almost every family that I met broke down in tears, tears of relief that their child would not spend another year in and out of forced isolation.

Carrying each story close to me as I made preparations for the first day of school, I wondered how this year would play out. Should I speak out directly against aversive discipline practices? Should I gather support from peers? From families? From my principal? From my union rep? As a new person in the district, it was difficult to know whom my allies were and if I would be retaliated against for speaking out, or even for rejecting aversive discipline methods in my own practice.

After speaking with trusted people, both inside and outside the profession, I decided I would attempt to transform my room and the time-out room in order to help the students heal. I wanted them to become self-advocates and to reclaim the classroom and time-out room for their personal expression. This could be a starting point, I thought.

Since the beginning of the year, the students and I have discussed such concepts as safe spaces, self-advocacy, and how to care for one another as members of a community. Through these conversations, the powerful presence of the time-out room has begun to shift. Additionally, no one has been forced to use the room or been forced into compliance with the threat of the room hanging over their heads. As a result, the students have begun to trust me, themselves, and each other, trust that we can provide care for one another and use the support resources in our community that we were actively cultivating. We have since covered the door of the time-out room in student artwork, depicting these community resources such as the ways the students contribute to our safe space, what a safe space looks like, and what resources they use for support within the safe space. Every now and then, the students will share stories with one another of their experiences being sent to the time-out room. I generally just listen in on these conversations, witnessing the amazing support that ten and eleven year olds are capable of providing one another. I like to remind the students in these moments, that they don’t need to be sent to that room, that no one does. But I think they might already understand this on their own.

Recently, a new family joined my program. The first thing they asked me was if their child would be subjected to use of the time-out room. They explained how often this happened to their child previously. They were concerned about its effectiveness. I simply directed their attention to the time-out room door with a smile and pointed out how our students had covered it with their artwork and that is the extent of how we use it in our classroom. The mother responded with a smile and an exhausted sigh of relief.

When one reads the files of any given special education student classified with an “emotional/behavioral disorder” one can find account upon account of aggressive behavior, opposition, noncompliance, etc. The reports reflect how these young people have extensive histories of being shuffled around from school to school, placement after placement as each incident occurs, often escalating in nature as the students grow older. As these children move through the education system, they acquire trauma after trauma, carrying the wounds of rejection inflicted upon them by institutions designed to control them, institutions in which they just can’t seem to fit in. They almost never receive appropriate or adequate care. They are shamed, yelled at, handcuffed, isolated by adults who demand compliance. These are children, however, and we are the adults. What exactly is our job as teachers and adult members of a community?

If school is meant to exist as a place of care, of curiosity, and growth, it has failed. However, the harsh and punitive environments of many of our special education classrooms and the policies such as aversive discipline reveal that is not why school exists.

It would appear that our true job as teachers is to prepare children to maintain the status quo, to fit neatly into their predetermined places in society as determined by their race, class, and gender. Poor students of color with special needs do not fit neatly into the mold of productive members of society, but rather have been deemed non-conformers, impossible to control. These are the students that we have decided need to be locked up and that will not change when they are no longer of school age. This is the school to prison pipeline in its most glaring form.

How many teachers feel inadequately prepared or supported? Too many. The teachers who resort to using the time-out room most frequently are certainly among them. Rather than paying for additional highly-trained therapeutic staff for classrooms, our administrations build time-out rooms. The structure leaves teachers overworked and unsupported, which feeds the process of reproducing oppression by controlling poor children of color, their minds, their bodies, their stories. Some might say the overuse of aversive discipline is a symptom of funding issues or bad leadership, a bad teacher here and there. However, this process is deliberate and pervasive. Classrooms, particularly self-contained special education classrooms, are not designed to honor children’s voices, experiences, and their histories of resisting unfair practices and policies. Once we’ve succeeded into forcing children into compliance, we will also have succeeded in breaking their intuitive sense of fairness and justice, succeeded in upholding the mission of compulsory education in our capitalist society.

In schools there are a variety of mechanisms in place to uphold the notion of aversive discipline as something useful and common sense. The very existence of time-out rooms in classrooms serve as a concrete symbol that they are needed and should be used. Our schools are drenched in such symbols, from metal detectors to cops in the hallways. These are the same symbols that dominate our streets, commercial spaces, and most institutions in our society. In the absence of a strong movement stating otherwise, these symbols dominate our perceptions of people and how we interact with one another. In my experience as a special education teacher, I have found, more often than not, other educators view aversive discipline as a common sense option, reaffirmed by the many social and environmental cues around them.

The proliferation of aversive discipline as common sense brings to mind the struggle faced by prison abolitionists to confront the notion that prisons are common sense, that we need prisons in our society and that solitary confinement is a reasonable response to noncompliance. We need to change these notions of common sense that our institutions and economic systems dictate. We must create the changes necessary so that it becomes common sense to support people and to never lock them up.