In the wake of the murder of Daunte Wright and the conviction of Derek Chauvin, there are yet again urgent and increasing calls for abolishing the police. Some of these conversations have spilled into advocates demanding the decriminalization of students in schools.
Let’s be real. Kids of color are constantly policed in schools.
Currently, Minnesota legislators are seriously considering a bill (SF1447) that could potentially further criminalize Black and brown children in our schools. The bill would consider a student’s history of violence when implementing teacher and classroom safety provisions. Essentially, the bill, if passed, would label students for the entirety of their pre-k through twelfth-grade experience if a student is perceived to have acted violently toward school staff.
A five year-old who hits a teacher, a developmentally appropriate response, would have to carry this label for 12 years.
A five year-old who hits a teacher, a developmentally appropriate response, would have to carry this label for 12 years. Let that sink in.
As a person of color, I can tell you the power of labels and teacher and staff expectations. Unfortunately, during my schooling experience, I’ve only had one teacher of color but no shortage of low expectations placed upon me. The consequences of low expectations are significant and long lasting; some external, such as receiving harsher discipline than white peers for similar behavior, but the worst is the internal impact. It’s easy to believe school is not a place for people that look like me, or that I’m not smart. The mental and emotional work I have to do to counteract this internal narrative is exhausting.
If I show emotion, even when it’s warranted, I’m labeled as the “angry Black girl.” I’m judged by my worst days. Meanwhile, I see my white peers acting out but it’s labeled as “shenanigans,” or “young people being young” or “trying to figure themselves out.” I want this level of grace and understanding to be extended to all students.
It’s important to know there are significant racial disparities between white students and students of color. For example, Black male students accounted for 25% of students who received an out-of-school suspension, but represented only 8% of enrolled students. And, 31% of Black students were referred to law enforcement or arrested in school, but only made up 15% of student enrollment.
Don’t criminalize our mere existence with labels and classroom pushout.
These stats hit close to home. A family friend who was in my second grade class, was constantly ridiculed by our teacher. One day, after being disengaged because of this troubling treatment, he fell asleep. He was kicked out of class. Seven years old and kicked out of class for sleeping. His teacher didn’t ask questions to learn that his mom was working two jobs and he was tasked with helping with his younger sibling. The principal didn’t inquire about the treatment from his teacher and his resulting disengagement because he didn’t feel safe. I wish I could say this was an isolated incident but it isn’t.
Making schools safer should mean making them welcoming places for all students, especially students of color (in a variety of ways such as investing counselors or in increasing the number of teachers of color). Don’t criminalize our mere existence with labels and classroom pushout.
Now more than ever, as students of color are seeing the violent treatment of people who look like me outside of school, we need schools to be a safe and supportive place for all students—not a place that labels us and takes away our right to learn.
Paula Akakpo is a high school student and Representative on the Minnesota Youth Council and on the Council’s Juvenile Justice Committee.
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