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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

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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.

Jock Culture, Rape Culture, and the need for Educator Hiring Halls

26 Oct

img_4351*trigger warning: sexual violence*

Following up on Veryl’s post about coaching yesterday, I’d like to share this article from the Nation about how jock culture supports rape culture, as well as this article about sexual violence at Notre Dame, my alma mater.  Both report stories of young women who were raped by members of school athletic teams, and then faced terrifying retaliation for speaking out.  Between these atrocities and the notorious Steubenville case, it should be increasingly clear to the public that America’s schools are breeding grounds of misogyny and rape culture, and that we need to put an end to this. 

Our comrade Kloncke has written some insightful and practical analysis of the struggle against rape culture in Steubenville, emphasizing the need to seek justice outside the court systems which perpetuate patriarchy and white supremacy: 

One thing is certain: none of the steps toward legal justice, halting and probably insufficient though they may be, would have happened without the bold interventions of ordinary people.  If Alexandria Goddard hadn’t grabbed those horrific tweets before the cretinous creators had a chance to delete them; if Anonymous and KnightSec had not continued releasing media to the public; if people of Steubenville, Wierton, Pittsburgh, and other surrounding towns had not come out to protest LOUDLY, over 1,000 strong in a town of 18,000; the police and the courts would have dampened and silenced the story of the assault, and Jane Doe would never have received support from all over the world — Malaysia to Minnesota, Warsaw to Wheeling.

Having spent some years in the activist scene of the Bay Area and other places, I’ve seen a lot of rallies and protests.  But the February 2nd protest in Steubenville was one of my favorites.  For one thing, it felt truly “survivor centered,” without losing touch with the political context — a difficult balance to achieve.  Brave people stepped up to the mic to tell their own stories or read aloud the stories of others: for some, this meant breaking a silence of 20, 30 years, or more.  It was breathtaking.

I also admired the rally because the audience would just shout out their opinions, unsolicited!  It was a call-and-response with the emcee; it was a conversation.  In an era of progressive NGOs in bed with politicians, or top-down protest styles that expect only two responses from the audience — cheers or silence — this protest was a refreshing example of mass participation, though still in small, nascent form.

We need more of this.  We need democratic, mass organizations linking up rural, exurban, and urban areas so that when shit goes down (and it will, again and again), we can decide, through organized bodies of people, how to take action.  When it comes to that democratic participation, and weaving together of neighboring towns, the Steubenville area could really get ahead of the curve.

At the same time, Kloncke points out that we need to move beyond simply responding to flashpoint crises: “Support is clearly necessary, but the problem is rampant, so the danger of burnout looms large…  In addition to supporting survivors of sexual assault, we must ask ourselves how to drain those stagnant pools: how to intervene in the conditions that allow rape culture to thrive.” 

I agree.  Education organizing and feminist anti-violence organizing should not necessarily be separate “issues”; the struggles we are waging in our schools should challenge rape culture on a day-by-day basis, as I wrote here.   Kloncke lays out some suggestions for the kind of demands and goals we could fight for in our schools: 

Sports. A focus on sports institutions as locations of rape-enabling power and authority would be great.  This is not to vilify organized sports, or lump  all athletes together as domineering scumbags.  But statistically, athletes are shown to have more rape-supportive attitudes.  And let’s remember: playing on a sports team, especially in high school, is a PRIVILEGE, not a RIGHT — even if the football team is the biggest social or economic game in a deindustrialized town.  It’s a little mind-numbing that Big Red has yet to exact any penalties on other players associated with the Rape Crew.  Why should they leave it up to the courts?  The Ohio High School Athletics Association specifies penalties for playing on unauthorized teams, for using drugs and alcohol, and other infractions.  NO MENTION OF SEXUAL ASSAULT.  That needs to change.  Parents, teachers, staff, students, and supporters, together, can make it change.

It says something profound about our economy and prospects for young people, as well, that commentary on the Rape Crew includes hand-wringing about whether the case will ruin Mays’ and Richmond’s chances at a decent future.  If their prospects are so bleak, what about other young people who would never qualify for an important sports team?   Throughout the country, as sports maintains its role as an economic juggernaut (from high schools to colleges to the pros), we need to demand decent resources for everyone, according to need — not just for the MVP’s.

Accountable Coaches. The second reason a school-and-sports-based strategy is useful is because it reminds us that we, the people, ought to be able to demand high-quality, well-trained anti-rape role models, educators, and resources in public schools.  Young people deserve nothing less.  And while the intention of the NFHSA reform is commendable, it’s also naïve.  A single mandatory course is not going to significantly shift the attitudes of those coaches (not all, but many) who’ve believed their whole lives that “boys will be boys” and sluts deserve what’s coming to them.  Again, these misogynist views are opinions held by a significant proportion of our society.  Why wouldn’t we demand more of our public figures, our educators, our mentors?  Instead of offering education to incumbent coaches, why not make them prove they are capable of upholding the anti-rape responsibilities that (should) come with their position?  An exam or licensing process, with a certain Pass/Fail ratio and follow-up training to support even those who pass, might not be out of the question.  (Hey, a girl can dream, right?)  And it’s weird that we’d even have to say this, but here goes: any coach who allows something like a “Rape Crew” to form among their players, under their watch, is clearly incapable of doing their job properly, and should be relieved of their duties.

Meaningful Education. Finally, in addition to demanding accountability from educators and coaches, working-class people can demand relevant and meaningful education for students — including education about rape (tellingly, many of the witnesses on the stand today didn’t seem to know what it is), rape culture, and the failures of the criminal justice system to address the root causes and conditions that allow sexual assault to flourish.  When public school teachers in Seattle, Washington recently organized with students and parents, refusing to waste precious life energy on useless standardized testing, the struggle awakened people’s imaginations to all the important knowledge that could be created in the classroom, instead of teaching to a test.  Rather than perpetuating a culture where survivors are shunned and silenced, we could be supporting students, young and old, in developing their own brilliant responses to sexual assault independent of the legal system.

Rape culture is so pervasive that it can seem overwhelming and impossible to confront.  I think Kloncke’s suggestions  provide some concrete starting points for possible struggles in the schools.   They highlight the kinds of demands we might be able to win if we develop our capacity and build a broad-based and militant teacher-student-community alliance. 

Kloncke’s point about accountable coaches also gets at a core issue in teacher/ educator/ staff organizing that I’ve written about here.   In reaction to the corporate ed reformers’ emphasis on teacher evaluation and accountability through standardized testing, a lot of Leftist and liberal teachers  have fallen into the trap of trying to defend the public schools as they currently exist.  This is not tenable, because our schools are breeding grounds of white supremacy, patriarchy, and class stratification.  We need to transform the schools, and this means being accountable to working class communities, NOT corporate think tanks and hedge funds.  Teachers and coaches should welcome  working class feminist efforts to fire coaches who condone “rape crews” and to replace them with coaches who can serve as anti-sexist role models. In fact, we should join such efforts, and look for moments in our schools where we can initiate them ourselves.  No amount of seniority and no union contract should protect a coach if there is clear evidence that he is complicit in encouraging rape.  

As a long term goal, I think we should fight for the power to make hiring and firing decisions that affect all teachers , coaches, and anyone else who works with youth, instead of leaving these decisions up to unelected administrators.  Teachers, students, and community members should be able to decide who teaches and coaches our youth.  Port workers demanded and won control of hiring and firing on the docks in the 1930s, ending the racist and humiliating shape up system (similar to the process by which day laborers are hired at Home Depots today).  However, over time these hiring halls became nepotistic and exclusive because they were run by the union itself as a private club,  not as a public organization run by the working class as a whole. Hence workers had an incentive to try to get their brothers, sons, and inlaws onto the job, which in Seattle has resulted in discrimination against Black workers.  To avoid this kind of outcome, a teacher/ coach/ education worker hiring hall would have to be run democratically with input not only from teachers but also from students and their families.  

Ultimately, this would be a revolutionary demand, because it would point the way toward a society of popular councils, assemblies, and committees instead of  one that is run by professional classes above society.  In the meantime, we can prefigure this goal by organizing ourselves and taking direct action to push the administration to fire individual misogynistic coaches and to hire coaches who know how to challenge rape culture. 

 

 

Trayvon Martin and the Badass Teachers Association

22 Jul

I recently joined the Badass Teachers Association.  The BAT Facebook forum exploded rapidly over the past few weeks, drawing together thousands of teachers who want to fight back against the corporate education “reformers”.  These politicians and think tanks, who should be called “deformers”,  are setting us up to fail by imposing new centralized standards while  at the same time cutting crucial resources we need to teach.   I’m happy to see that teachers are tired of this, and that we are starting to organize ourselves to fight back.  I’m happy to see we’re done playing the role of passive, obedient professionals, and instead we’re ready to act like badass workers.  This puts us in good company:  it puts us on the side of badass truckers, longshore, warehouse, and fast food workers who have been fighting back recently.

Badass longshore workers face down EGT, a company pushing for corporate waterfront reform (aka unsafe working conditions, and more corporate control of workers on the job)

Badass longshore workers face down EGT, a company pushing for “corporate waterfront reform” (aka unsafe working conditions, and more corporate control of workers on the job)

However, to build a movement of badass teachers,  we will need to break through the wall that has held back so many  labor movements in the past: the wall of institutionalized racism, or systemic white supremacy.  White supremacy  divides working class people, giving some of us unearned advantages over others, and making some of us complicit in the oppression of others.  This weakens the overall struggle of the working class for freedom and creativity.  Instead of fighting back against the capitalist system that is controlling us, white supremacy prompts us to go home at the end of the workday thinking “at least I’m not Black” (or Latino, or Native, or…. )

White supremacy can only be broken down through action.  When a mostly white jury found George Zimmerman not guilty for the murder of  Black teenager Trayvon Martin, thousands of people took to the streets.   Imagine what it would be like if workers built off of this energy by  shutting down business as usual, saying “if you are going to kill our youth, we will refuse to work”.   This is how the West Coast prisoners have responded to  injustice; why can’t we do the same?  Of course, a strike action would take serious coordination and organization, and I hope that networks like the Badass Teachers Association can start laying the groundwork for that within our schools.

However, judging from the Facebook debates, not all of the Badass Teachers are on the same page about the need for this kind of solidarity.  Some suggested that talking about race, rather than racism itself, is the source of the divisions among us.

The whole discussion about Trayvon had started because some  teachers were posting heartfelt questions about how they could help their students process these traumatic and racially charged  current events in the classroom.  Others were emphasizing that many of their students could be the next Trayvon if we don’t take action to challenge the racism that lead to his murder.  However, in response to these genuine expressions of solidarity, other teachers argued that talking about Trayvon or about the underlying racial issues is a distraction from fighting the corporate education reforms.

I strongly disagree with that last perspective, and I posted this statement explaining why:

 Some people on here are asking why issues of race are relevant to badass teachers. Here’s one answer. Teachers are under attack by corporate education deformers like Gates, Broad, the privatizers, etc. One of their main strategies is to rally working class communities, including working class Black communities, against teachers. They do this by pointing out how the public schools reproduce class and race inequality in society – what they call the “achievement gap”. The thing is, our schools DO reproduce inequality and everyone knows it. The corporate “reformers” have no effective solution to that problem – they will simply scapegoat us for it, in order to deflect popular anger away from them. But they will succeed at doing that if we remain complacent in the face of all the inequality in our schools. So if teachers want to defeat the corporate attacks on us and our schools, then we can’t simply defend public education as it currently exists . We need to fight to transform it. We need to directly confront institutionalized racism and white supremacy, in our schools and in the larger society. Joining our students in making sure they don’t become the next Trayvon Martins is part of that.

That’s one more reason why I’ll be out there on Tuesday joining with students who are rallying to make sure they are not the next Trayvon.  If we are going to be badass teachers, we need to act like badass fighters against all forms of oppression, including the white supremacy that is devouring the lives of our students and communities.

Healing not Control: Confronting Rape Culture in the Classroom

22 Jan

Stephanie Rivera wrote an excellent blog post about the need to create space in the classroom to talk about trauma, self-harm, and rape.  She mentioned recent suicides and mass shootings across the country and the horrific rape case  at Steubenville High School.  How can teachers and students make classrooms into places where we can heal from this trauma, and where the underlying causes of mass trauma and oppression can be examined and confronted collectively?

We can only do that if we confront the sexism and rape culture that permeates so many schools, making them unsafe places for young women, gender non-conforming, and LGBTQ folks.   That requires creating intentional space for solidarity, healing, and power.  And that takes time and trust.

Rivera writes:

It is disheartening to hear some education professors say, “it’s a shame there may be no chance for you to implement these tactics in your classroom because of the raising emphasis on high-stakes testing.” If I won’t be able to implement something as simple as a classroom structure based on discussion where my students sit in a circle, what can I do?

What a twisted system to be investing in an education that is teaching me how to teach, only to enter into a system where such skills aren’t even valued.

Today’s education is so strongly associated with academics, that we often forget this is a place where our youth come to learn how to be. Our youth spend majority of their “growing-up years” here. Yet, for some reason, education is not our country’s top priority. For some reason, so many people still want to look at school as a business, a place to train obedience, a place where students are led to believe that only importance of school is getting good grades, passing tests, and going onto college.

This is why I fight.

That’s also why we fight.  The struggle against standardized testing here in Seattle should also be about opening up space to heal from trauma and to confront gendered violence and all forms of oppression and control.  We need time to do that, time we will not have if we waste it on preparing to take standardized tests.

Folks from around the country are also coming together to try to do something about the rape at  Steubenville.  This blog is part of an effort to make  demands on the Steubenville High School administration to drastically change the culture at the school.  The goal is to raise the consequences for rape in order to prevent future violence, not just there but in our own communities across the country.

If you support this effort, please indicate your support in the comments section of their blog.  But more importantly, please organize in your own school and community to create space to have these discussions, to heal, and to confront rape culture.  This doesn’t just happen in Midwest towns like Steubenville, it also happens here in “liberal” Seattle, and we have the same responsibility as anyone else to stop it in our own communities.