Saturday, May 30, 2015

Teach for America Is As Toxic Pedagogically As It Is Politically

   When I organized a panel for the Labor and Working Class History Association Conference in Washington on "Why Progressive Faculty Should Boycott Teach for America," what was foremost in my mind was the role that TFA was playing in supplying replacement labor for school districts firing veteran teachers and its training of leaders promoting school privatization, but what I came away from the panel with was a much enhanced understanding of the damage TFA pegadogy is doing in inner city schools.

   This is not a subject I had much familiarity with, since i am not a teacher educator, or someone involved with training teachers or developing curricula, but the composition of the panel, which included two teacher educators,Dave Green and Joan Croce Grim, and two former TFA Corps members, Desmera Gatewood and Annie Tan, ended up focusing much of the discussion on what TFA teachers bring into the classroom.

   And here, what i learned was horrifying. Basically, because TFA teachers are thrown into extremely challenging school settings with only five weeks of training, and no student teaching experience, they are given a template which includes cookie cutter formulas for handling discipline and class management issues,  and an approach to teaching which ONLY emphasizes preparing students for standardized tests.  TFA teachers are required to follow this template even when it isn't working, even when it alienates students, and even though it totally excludes any attempt to make instruction relevant to cultural background and traditions of the students they are working with.

     The results of this can be disastrous in any school, but they are particularly disastrous in Charter Schools, where more and more TFA Corps members are sent, where almost all the teachers are from TFA and few of them have been in the classroom more than 2 or 3 years. The results in such schools is that you vary between classrooms that are out of control, to those which practice zero tolerance discipline and expel large numbers of students, a choice which forces many charters in the second direction, and a pedagogy that is Eurocentric, stale and entirely oriented around test prep.

    It would be hard to imagine a worse scenario for students in low and moderate income communities- fearful, inexperienced teachers,  saddled with a curriculum that stifles students creativity inquisitiveness and rebellious instincts who teach in terror of superiors who demand they stick to a rigid script.

     It is a crime that we are doing this to teachers, but an even worse crime that we are doing this to children, especially children of color
What is going on in heavily TFA dominated charter schools is something straight out of Charles Dickens, and it is spreading to public schools following the charter model who work in fear of being shut down.

     Teach for America is not only toxic politically, it is toxic pedagogically

Brilliant Speech by Music Teacher Alec Shantzis to New Jersey Department of Education

Good evening and thank you for this opportunity to speak. My name is Alec Shantzis. I have taught music in Cliffside Park for 12 years and been a Cliffside Park resident for 23 years. I am secretary of the Cliffside Park Education Association, a position I have held for 5 years. I am also a single parent raising three children by myself. My youngest son attends this school, Bergen Tech. I am also an Emmy award-winning musician. As a music teacher I have had the privilege of instructing over 2,000 students that are currently enrolled in my district and thousands of other students in the past 12 years. These remarkable young people are not just my students; they are the friends of my children and the children of my friends. I have not only taught them, but I have put band aids on scraped knees and mourned the passing of loved ones in my community, most recently Mayor Calabrese. Whose grandchildren I taught and whose family I consider among my friends. You would be hard pressed to find a teacher that cares about the students and people of a district any more than I do.

When Governor Christie took office, NJ had one of the highest achieving educational systems in the country. Immediately upon his election, Governor Christie began to defund schools, institute reforms and attack the reputation of teachers. These actions are not just our Governor being his usual genteel, caring self, they are part of a coordinated national takeover of the public education system in order to profit from it. New Jersey is only one cog in a much larger wheel of greed and profit-taking led by the AmericanLegislativeExchangeCouncil (ALEC), the Gates foundation, The Walton’s, Pearson and other billionaire campaign donors and falsely altruistic foundations that comprise a quorum of the sociopathic elite.

By over testing, over test prepping and mandating “reforms”, we are depriving a generation of young people of a proper education. Worse yet, by forcing a curriculum that was not designed by career educators, but by business people, by using poorly constructed tests that were designed with profit and privatization as a main goal, and not true assessment. We are creating students that hate school and creating tens of thousands of heavily stressed teachers nationwide. This is a horrible tragedy. Assessments are a tool for teaching, not for gathering data as a weapon against teachers or a tool to dismantle hurdles in the way of profit. Education should be filled with activities that nurture student creativity, that create a lifetime love of learning, activities that build self esteem and give students a physical outlet.

Since I teach such a large number of students, I have a unique overview of student behavior and attitude. I have seen is a rise of stress in students, a rise of misbehavior, a growing lack of interest in school and loss of respect for school and schoolwork. How can a student respect a school that in effect disrespects them, wasting their childhood wonder, turning it empty and cold? How can we ask teachers to say, “this test is important and meaningful and you should take it seriously” when we ourselves do not believe it? By tying evaluations to test scores, then tying evaluations to job security, underfunding schools, forcing millions of dollars in hidden costs as unfunded mandates onto districts (such as bandwidth, laptops, tech staff, evaluators, evaluative systems, and training sessions…) by reducing benefits, forcing payins into benefits, increasing meaningless paperwork for teachers and administrators alike, we have created a pressure cooker that is not only not in the best interest of our students or our teachers, it is doing horrible damage.

We have seen a mass exodus of the most experienced teachers because they will not bear witness to the destruction they see all around them. Teachers with 30 plus years of service forced to submit to punitive evaluations sometimes in the hands of brand new supervisors half their age that approach their new position as if there is a majority of teachers that are ineffective. “If the only tool you are given is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” and teachers are getting hammered. Now that the state has “shed” all its senior educators, our work force is young, less expensive, and living in fear. These young educators carry huge amounts of student loan debt and are questioning if they made the right decision. This is not the teaching they saw as children and aspired to grow up to be. It is, for many young teachers a sickening realization. There are so many facets to this issue that I do not have time to cover or even skim over. If time allowed, I would discuss charters and the investment opportunities they present which are the real reason so many Governors are pushing them and lifting caps on Charter schools. But, I must save that for another time.

I finish my testimony by saying; Pearson is no friend to education. PARCC is a mistake. Common Core is a mistake. To think that “the answer” is to have all students nationally adhere to the same curriculum, and a poorly written one at that (especially in the lower grades) is a huge mistake. I urge you each to consider our commitment to the lives of these young people. The ruse of the terms “college and career ready”, “21st century education”, “increased rigor” and other reform lingo is just meaningless chatter. We owe our young people joy in learning, we owe them a place to explore the wonder of learning, and we owe them a chance to enjoy the strong points of each of their different teachers. A cookie cutter, Walmart-ized approach to education is tragically flawed. These tests are wrong. These reforms are wrong. Making decisions about education without teacher input is flawed and unethical.

With that I say. I am happy to meet with any of you to discuss these matters in more depth. I thank you for your time and attention.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A Poem for Cuomo, Tisch and the Regents

They keep
Think they can
buy us
Intimidate us
Make us
fight with one
But when children's
futures are
at stake
When you want
to smother the spark
within them
There is no
No giving
We will stop
We will frustrate
We will

Educational Malfeasance at John Dewey HS in Brooklyn- Letter from a Teacher

I recently came across some of your publications while looking for NYC educators who might be interested in a cause some teachers are pursuing at our school, John Dewey High School. The current principal, Kathleen Elvin, has engaged in a number of activities which have been severely detrimental the education of our students as well as the pride we all once took as educators. One of the many issues on which a few of us have been brave enough to challenge her is a credit recovery program. We have put in an enormous amount  of time and work into documenting her and her administrators illegal efforts to grant students diplomas even though they have come nowhere close to meeting state education standards. Some of their deeds have included creating classes that never actually met and giving all of its students passing grades, assigning teachers courses that cover over a dozen different subject areas for which they are not legally licensed to teach, and handing student packets of rudimentary work that they completed over the course of a few hours in order to receive credit for a full semester class. Teachers who have been assigned these classes have been predominantly non-tenured and therefore unable to say no.

We reported this to the Department of Education’s Office of Special Investigations in February of 2014 and provided them a continuous flow of evidence in order to strengthen our case and assist in their investigation. Then last December, OSI told us that they no longer required anymore evidence. We immediately realized that they were probably going to do nothing at all to properly address this issue. Someone in a supervisory position probably told them to let it die. We have now seen hundreds of students, most of them black and Latino, receive diplomas over the last three years who rarely attended class and were in no way near having legitimately earned the proper number of credits required for a high school diploma. We know that initiatives that would have required spending more money and time could have had very positive results although not quite as impressive as the fraudulent results our administration fabricated. However, they would have been legitimate.

Juan Gonzalez recently wrote two articles in which he exposed this malfeasance to the public, yet we still believe that Chancellor Fariña simply intends to let the issue die. I am acting on my own in writing to you, but a few of us are preparing a letter to the mayor and chancellor expressing our outrage. We plan to forward it to any organizations inside and outside of New York City who would listen and possibly apply a little bit of pressure. Maybe you could suggest some of these organizations.

Please excuse me for writing to you anonymously.  I’m sure that someone with your background can understand why I would want to do so at this point. We have already attached our names to various initiatives and we will do so again of this initiative shows promise.

Below are links to that Juan Gonzalez article.

Thank you in advance for any advice you might be able to offer.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Should Business Leaders Be Put in Charge of Education?

During the last 15 years, elected officials of both parties decided that business leaders would be better equipped to transform our public education system and make it "globally competitive" than teachers and school administrators. Their reasoning: why not put education policy in the hands of the most successful people in the country- people like Bill Gates, the Waltons, Eli Broad, and Michael Bloomberg.

Not only did this policy show a profound misunderstanding of and lack of respect for what educators do, it gave our "business leaders" far too much credit. During the last 30 years, when these business leaders have been given free reign to reshape the American economy, we have seen:

Millions of jobs exported or outsourced.
CEO's enrich themselves to an unprecedented degree
Whole sectors of the economy- e.g. Hedge Funds- emerge which produce nothing and accumulate an unconscionable proportion of national wealth
Wages and incomes remain stagnant for the majority of American workers and families.
The housing market crash and millions of families lose their homes to foreclosure
Tens of millions of people be saddled with credit card and college tuition debt they may never be able to pay off.

In short, the rich got MUCH richer, the poor got poorer, and the middle class shrunk.

Do you really want to hand over  control of our public schools to people who enriched themselves while living standards for most people deteriorated?

High School Students in the Bronx Deserve a Full Array of School Teams

During the last year, an organization called NYCLetEmPlay has burst into the public eye by mounting a number of loud and effective protests demanding that high school students of color have the same access to athletic teams as students at the few remaining predominantly white public high schools. The organization, which began at a small South Bronx high school, has eloquently presented the plight of Black and Latino students, mostly from immigrant families, who have been unable to compete in the sports they are skilled in at the high schools they attend. 

   This problem is particularly acute in the Bronx, where almost of the borough's high school have been turned into campuses where 5 or 6 "academies" share a building, and where a large proportion of the students are from first or second generation immigrant families.  The Bronx today, whose population was once predominantly African American, Puerto Rican and West Indian is the site of four new  waves of immigration- one from West Africa, the other from Mexico, the third from the Dominican Republic, the fourth from South Asian nations.  Young people from these groups compose the majority of the student population at many Bronx schools and the sports they are passionate about should be available in the form of interscholastic teams to every student who wants to play on them. Every high school in the Bronx should have boys and girls soccer teams, to represent the African and Mexican students; boys baseball and girls softball, for the Dominican students, and  in the East Bronx, where the South Asian population is represented, schools should have boys and girls cricket.  Along with this, every high school should have a track team.

 This may not seem to be so much to ask for, but right now, these sports are not available to thousands of Bronx high school students who want to compete in them

 This is not only a terrible blow to their morale, it is depriving the best of them of opportunities for college scholarships, or  college admissions advantages, that they could gain though interscholastic competition in sports they are skilled in.

  The New York City Board of Education, and the New York City Council, needs to assure that this denial of rights and opportunities ends NOW. For students in the Bronx, and students in similar circumstances all around the city.

Friday, May 22, 2015

What High School Students Want

If you actually talk to high school students they want

Teachers who care about them
An opportunity to express themselves
Teams they can play on
Arts and music programs which allow their talents to blossom
School counselors they can talk to
Less tests and more alternative paths to graduation.
Opportunities to learn skills which lead directly to employment
Respectful treatment from instructional staff and security personnel
After school programs where they can study, play ball, do art work,
learn skills.
Lunch hours at a reasonable time which actually give them time to eat
Regularly scheduled physical education classes which have activities for students at all levels of physical fitness.
Classes which incorporate cultural traditions they are familiar with

How many of those things are they getting now?
You tell me

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Return of Community History? Hope and Inspiration at C.A.S.A Middle School in the Bronx

Today, i paid a visit to a small middle school in the Bronx headed by a visionary principal named Jamaal Bowman, who I have been communicating with via Facebook for the last year. The school, called Cornerstone Academy for Social Action ( aka C.A.S.A Middle School) is  in a part of the Northeast Bronx i know well. It adjoins a small public housing complex called Boston Secor, which is the place of residence of a great Bronx DJ,. Danny Beat Mann Martinez and  of Leroi Archible, a long time Bronx polltical activist, veterans leader and youth sports organizer, who was a Community Researcher for the Bronx African American History Project .

I knew i was going to have great conversations with Jamaal Bowman, but what i saw impressed me as much as what i heard. The first thing i noticed was the way the students carried themselves. It is no secret that middle school students are the most difficult age to work with and are a challenge to the most gifted administrators, but the young people who entered the auditorium at the beginning of school were different than what i expected. They were shockingly well behaved, yet without the aura of intimidation you see in "zero tolerance" school settings. They looked - dare I say- relaxed to be at the school, an attitude helped by the fact that there were no metal detectors, no police and no hovering presence of security guards

The second thing i noticed what was on the screen in the auditorium,  where the students assembled, which was a quote from Afrika Bambatta about the positive values of hip hop culture- "Peace, Unity and Having Fun."  I shook my head in amazement.  Not only was the school promoting hip hop  as an integral part of community history, it was actually promoting "having fun" as a positive value, something very unusual in the era of high stakes testing

When Principal Bowman took me up to the fourth floor, where the school's classrooms were located ( the school shared the building with an elementary school and district 75 school with a high needs population) i realized that what I saw on the screen was not an apparatition! The spotlessly clean hallways and newly painted walls were covered with murals celebrating figures in African American and Latino history ranging from Malcolm X  and Martin Luther King J to Sonia Sotomayor and Fanny Lou Hamer. Alongside the murals were displays of written work in subjects ranging from math to history to science and language arts.

But what was most impressive was what was missing. There were no reference on the walls to testing! No data walls, no pep talks, no slogans about acing the tests!  While I had no idea what was going on in the classrooms- and given the sheer number of tests middle school students were deluged with test prep had to be part of the curriculum- it was clear that nobody in this school was making testing the centerpiece of school culture. That place was taken by community history and the history of the African American and Latino peoples who made up the overwhelming majority ( I would say 95% plus) of the population of the school

I got the same message when I went into Principal Bowman's office. I was blown away by an beautiful mural that dominated the wall that included portraits of Tupac Shakur and DJ Kool Herc. Clearly the message in this school, being promoted form the top down, was that these students were the carriers of a proud culture tradition created in the Bronx communities where they lived.

 I cannot tell you how moved I was by what I saw. Ten years ago, i was doing community history projects in more than 20 Bronx schools. All of them were pushed out when Test Mania took over the Bloomberg Administration and the NYC DOE began giving letter grades to schools based on test scores and closing them en mass (168 in all). To see a school, right now, in the midst of still fierce test pressures, put community history at the forefront was incredibly inspiring, especially since Principal Bowman wants to spread the model throughout the Bronx and the city.

 Though his mission is still in its early stages, what I saw today mad me incredibly optimisic

Monday, May 18, 2015

AJ's Plight: A Horrendous Tale of Racism and Suppression of Test Resistance in an Upstate NY Town

AJ's plight-

It should be noted that the story below is only a snapshot of what this child has endured and the grandparents, who are raising him, have detailed accounts supported by various methods: 
•Audio tape
•Written reports
•Video tape
as well as a meticulous paper trail spanning more than 10 years.

AJ is a 13-year-old bi-racial male in a 96% white school, in Fort Ann Central School District, in upstate NY. 
The largest employers in the community are two local prisons which house a majority of non-white males.  AJ is also a child with disabilities including: Dyslexia, Autism Spectrum Disorder and Language Processing Disorder. 

He was classified as a child with disabilities at two years old and provided special education services until Kindergarten. Suddenly, two weeks before entering Kindergarten -- the Fort Ann Central School removed all of his special education services without ever re-evaluating him
He was given only a full time 1:1 Aide support on paper.

Just five weeks into his Kindergarten year and barely five years old -- while left unattended --  he went missing from the school campus and wandered a mile down a 55-mph highway in the rain.
He was found by migrant farm workers.

When he went missing the school *did NOT call the police. The school made the family wait for an entire week to sit and discuss the incident. The grandparents requested an "incident report" to document the details of what happened. The District produced a written "report" which did not even identify AJ's name, gender or age. It simply stated, "a student in kindergarten did not get on his/her designated bus and walked home."  The grandparents were shocked and horrified that such a negligent act would be completely covered up!

One month later, AJ was physically accosted by his 1:1 Aide. He was playing with a tree branch at the edge of the play ground and didn't move away when the Aide told him to do so. The Aide draped her metal whistle chain over his head and bore down with a jerking force. The contact to his skin was under his hair so it was not visible but was sore for days afterwards. As a result of our report to the school, they changed his Aide immediately but *REFUSED to call the police.

Despite the District's negligence in removing his Special Ed services, putting him in danger by leaving him unsupervised to go missing,  and his being abused, the administration  dug in and would NOT reinstate AJ's Special Education services. Instead the grandparents were forced to seek help from an Advocate and initiate a Due Process Hearing to have him Re-Classified to receive Special Ed services.

AJ endured many challenges throughout his elementary school experience including: racial 
bullying, discrimination & harrassment by staff and peers, public humiliation by staff, educational neglect, low self esteem and distorted self-image. 

Over the years, school surveillance video recordings conveniently disappeared or were not made accessible to us if AJ was the victim. In the videos that the grandparents were allowed to see, the volume was often indiscernible.

The grandparents were allowed to see one video of AJ being shoved with excessive force into his bus seat by an adult Aide. As AJ sat there crying the Aide leaned over close to his ear and repeatedly told him to "SHUT UP... SHUT UP..." but the volume was turned down very low. When they requested to view the video a second time with full volume -- the video suddenly disappeared! *The School did NOT call the Police on this matter either.

During AJ's 6th grade school year, the school staff reported that AJ did NOT engage in any challenging behaviors and did NOT need a Behavior Intervention Plan (positive proactive supports).

He had only received four behavior referrals up until May of that year, for very minor infractions.
However, in May,  his 1:1 Aide said that the Principal directed the staff to write AJ up for everything, no matter how minor. They even wrote him up for the same thing twice but it still only totaled nine referrals for the year. Based on those NINE MINOR infractions, the Principal emailed the grandparents and threatened to contact the County Family Court to file a PINS (Persons In Need of Supervision) petition against AJ. The grandparents were in shock because they knew another parent in the school who told them that her son had received upwards of 70 referrals in a single year for major infractions, BUT was NOT referred to PINS. That student was white and a star athlete.

In February 2014, during  AJ's 7th grade year, the District introduced an Independent Consultant named Dave Mitchell -- to act as a Special Education "Co Chairperson" for only a select few students.  Mr. Dave Mitchell  has attended every one of AJ's meetings since then and continues to work toward stripping away AJ's services and supports today.

AJ continued to be harassed and bullied throughout his middle school experience, enduring racist and disability slurs from peers, biased reporting by staff and educational neglect across the board. In 7th grade, a Board Certified Behavioral Analyst (BCBA) conducted a school observation of AJ and noted in her report that AJ was being bullied by his Special Ed teacher in front of the entire class with the BCBA present...
The school Psychologist stated to the BCBA that "AJ is not innately motivated to achieve academically."  Her statement appeared baseless in fact, and the grandparents think it may be more reflective of the Psychologist's opinion of young black men in general.

During 7th grade several independent parties wrote to the school in an attempt to document the bullying that AJ was enduring and to appeal to the District to put a STOP to it. These letters and reports were written by his former 1:1 Aide, a parent who scribed for her son, his graphic account of what he watched AJ endure daily, the BCBA and his Pediatric Neuropsychologist.  

Sample excerpt from an eye witness's letter:
"He states that ..." ____, ____ and ____ would "always run behind AJ during soccer, kicking his legs so he would fall and calling him nigger, cunt, retard, and ass-hole"
When asked what "always" means to him he said he witnessed it "at least every other practice -- but usually every single one," that AJ was at.
He stated that they would say he was "horrible at soccer because black people don't play soccer. They were made to fight in gangs." They would also "constantly" say to AJ that "blacks aren't REAL people."

These letters and reports were refuted by the school and they staunchly defended that AJ was NOT a victim of bullying at school.

By the end of 7th grade, AJ was entering puberty and finding it even more difficult  to emotionally handle  the taunts of his peers. One day, after he had hit several balls out of the park in BB practice, a teammate told him he "sucked."  André was so confused and frustrated by the insult that he ended up punching a door and breaking his hand. This was a huge warning sign that AJ was unable to cope with the ongoing harassment from peers. His grandparents supported him the best they could last summer. 

Then, he entered 8th grade. Three weeks into school, AJ was verbally threatened and physically attacked by a student who had consistently called AJ a nigger and other racial slurs. On this particular day, there was a girl provoking the attacker. He verbally threatened AJ before punching and shoving him onto a lunchroom table. AJ fell backwards onto the table and as he sprang up trying to regain his balance the lunch monitor was publicly ordering him to go to the office -- NOT THE ATTACKER. The attacker simply walked over to another table and sat down smugly. This frustrated AJ immensely, so he picked up his belongings and threw them (not at anyone) and swore as he went to the office. AJ was suspended for four days out of school for throwing his belongings and swearing. It was reported that the (white) student was only suspended out of school for five days after verbally threatening AJ, punching him, and shoving him onto the table.

By October of 8th grade, the school was allowing AJ to sit and listen to music on his school issued IPad. The grandparents voiced their disagreement but the school kept allowing it. Although the IPad was of little educational benefit to AJ -- the grandparents were concerned it was a way for the school to harass him and track him.

In November, the Principal's son told AJ that he had the District's private password and a new music App had been purchased and made accessible to AJ. As a result, AJ downloaded music to his IPad during a study hall. Shortly thereafter his IPad was confiscated and he was given detention for the unauthorized music download. When AJ told the Principal that his son had given him the information, the matter was quickly swept under the rug. 
The Principal should have recused himself from the investigation immediately upon learning that his son was involved but he did not. Instead, AJ served detention and the referral was added to his record

By the end of November, AJ continued to explore the features on his IPad and learned to master the keyboard in different fonts. He wrote his name in seven different languages & since the fonts are in alphabetical order, the first was ARABIC. AJ was proud of his accomplishments and made a handwritten poster of his name in seven different languages to display in his binder.

One day, he used his poster to write his name in Arabic on his English paper. The teacher confiscated the paper and gave it to the Principal who asked AJ about it later. AJ was confused and the grandparents were too. The grandparents asked the Principal if he was aware of any concerns with AJ's paper and him writing in different fonts. The Principal emailed the grandparents stating, HE WAS NOT AWARE OF ANY CONCERNS.

The teacher who confiscated AJ's paper later divulged to the grandparents that she took the paper and gave it to the Principal because  he had the staff monitoring AJ's activity. What she described was watching him for TERRORIST activity.

In January 2015, AJ was being harassed by two other students (a boyfriend and girlfriend) who had displayed nude pictures of the girl. AJ was being blamed for telling other students about the pics -- but he hadn't told. AJ continued to endure foul, sexual, racist and threatening comments from the girl and boy. The boy put his hands around AJs neck and told  him he was going to kill him repeatedly during school. This was reported to the Principal but  he did not put a stop to it. 

(By February, the District became aware that AJ's grandparents have obvious Anti -Common Core affiliations.)

In March 2015, after two months of being badgered, AJ decided to take matters into his own hands and called the boy out and punched him one time giving him a black eye. Then AJ calmly picked up
his books and went to the office. *The police were called immediately. AJ was suspended out of school for five days. 
His suspension letter was sent by overnight mail. The letter stated reason for suspension, "jumping over a lunch table, punching student causing injury and substantial pain. (Penal Code Language)

One week later, a white classmate was shoved in gym class by a peer. The classmate shoved back and then punched the peer square to the face, splitting his lip open and connecting with three or four more punches to the head of the injured peer.  This is all on video!
Parents of the white students arrived at school and took  their sons home for the weekend and came back on Monday to meet with the Principal to discuss consequences. The Police weren't called until Monday (three days after the incident). The student who threw the punches broke his hand and required a cast; the student who was punched had a lacerated lip. The Principal met with the boy who threw the punches and his parents and reviewed the Penal Code Language with them. The Principal told them he was going to go with the NO INJURY code. He then told  them he was going to suspend the boy out of school for two days and discussed how he was  going to word the suspension letter. The letter is received SIX days AFTER the incident. The suspension letter OMITS ANY RECORD OF INJURY and states the reason for suspension as "punching another student during an incident in physical education class."

AJ, the bi-racial student is portrayed as a violent offender whereas the white child is portrayed as merely throwing a punch during an incident. 

AJ's school Internet activity was also being monitored by the District's Network Coordinator via remote desktop. While AJ was randomly surfing the internet in the library he went on a PayPal site and was immediately reported and called to the Principal's office. *The Principal immediately called the Police AGAIN without even confirming whether AJ had done anything wrong. While the Police were standing in the office, the Network Coordinator confirmed that AJ did not do anything illegal. Obviously,  the Principal jumped the gun in an effort to pin another criminal charge on AJ. Fortunately the Principal was unsuccessful, but he still gave AJ a behavior referral for going on the site. Again, this was a school computer with school filters and blocks. Why wasn't that site blocked?

In April, AJ opted out of New York State Testing. He was placed in an alternate location where he was made to sit and read silently for 90 minutes each day. This was an extreme challenge for AJ as he is a dyslexic student and the District refused to allow any of his IEP accommodations.

On the second day of testing AJ was sitting quietly with a headache (not reading) when the principal entered the library and announced that all students had to read silently or they would get referrals. He then singled AJ out and told him that he had to read silently. AJ responded in a normal tone and said that he did not want to read, and he didn't care what he got. The principal said you're coming with me so AJ got up to leave and tossed his magazines on the table. As they were leaving the library the Principal publicly humiliated him on the way out the door by smacking the door and announcing sarcastically, "You did good AJ, you did great!" AJ was taken to the office and immediately suspended out of school for one day because he was unable to sit and read silently for 90 minutes. 

It should be noted that another student who did not like his assigned seat during the alternate location, had announced loudly, "Hell no. I'm not sitting here," and walked out of the library on the same day. That student was allowed to sit in the office during the opt out time.

The grandparents protested the obvious discriminatory treatment towards AJ BUT the district only escalated  their efforts against him  by holding a premature Manifestation Determination Team meeting to decide if AJ's behaviors that led to his suspensions were a result of his disability. 
Dave Mitchell also served as the Manifestation Hearing Officer. During the meeting, the High School Principal flat out LIED to the team denying that there ever was a physical attack on AJ's body in the September lunchroom incident where AJ swore and threw his belongings after being punched and shoved onto the table. The grandparent immediately requested that the team be allowed to see the video BUT the Manifestation Hearing Officer refused to allow the team to view the video of the lunch room incident. Instead, Dave Mitchell unilaterally determined that AJ's behaviors were not connected to his disabilities in any way.

After the Manifestation Hearing, the school SuperintendentKevin Froats, ramped up the retaliation toward AJ even more by assigning Dave Mitchell as sole disciplinarian of AJ- in place of the HS Principal. An unprecedented act of discrimination, retaliation and harassment toward AJDave Mitchell serves as AJ's CSE Co-Chairperson, his Manifestation Hearing Officer and now AJ's School Disciplinarian.

On the first day of Dave Mitchell's assignment as AJ's Disciplinarian, he wrote AJ up and gave him two nights of detention for name-calling that had occurred the previous week. The following week, Dave Mitchell wrote him up again for another incident of name-calling/lewd gesture and gave him a four-hour Saturday detention. On this incident he said he was sending two separate referrals for the SAME incident. The grandparents believe Dave Mitchell is trying to increase the total number of referrals for the year, in order to justify taking harsher actions against AJ since there's very little time left in the school year. 

Despite the fact that AJ is a child with a significant Language Processing Disorder and has received punishment after punishment for language infractions, Dave Mitchell tried to hold AJ's Special Education annual review meeting WITHOUT conducting the required Speech and Language re-evaluation. The grandparents insisted that the re-evaluation be conducted per Education Law, prior to developing next year's Individualized Educational Program for AJ.

The grandparents know that time is of the essence for AJ as the District continues to strip away his services and replace them with behavior referrals. The District is withholding a Free Appropriate Public Education from AJ and instead trying to push him into the penal system. His day-to-day physical and emotional safety is NOT secure in such a hostile environment. The Fort Ann Central School District must be forced to stop the harassment, intimidation, retaliation and discrimination against AJ and his family. All involved are destroying any and all chances for him  to function normally or have opportunities for a future. P

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Coming High School Graduation Crisis in New York State

Among the many things that the NY State Regents and New York State Department of Education have done terribly wrong is require all students in the state, other than a small number of students with IEP's, to pass five Regents examinations to graduate from high school. This is a huge departure from when I went to school when students had a choice of graduating with a Regents diploma, a commercial diploma, or a general diploma. That was a time when New York City and New York State had first rate vocation and technical programs, and many young people chose to go that route, and head straight for the job market, rather than go the academic route and head off to college.  Somehow, between now and then, the geniuses in Albany decided that everyone has to get a Regents diploma and in the process, they ended up undermining technical and vocational education in many parts of the state.

There have been some gains as a result of that approach. More students have gone on to college and junior college, and fewer students have been
neglected entirely and put in make work classes with teachers that don't push them. Unfortunately, while all this has taken place, many technical and vocational programs in the state have been undermined, requiring students who want a trade to spend their own money on trade schools after they leave high school, with or without a degree

But the worst damage is yet to come. In the last few years, as Regents exams are increasingly aligned with the Common Core standards, the exams have been made much more difficult, and many students are in an utter panic about being able to graduate from high school. Worse yet, the alternative to an official high school diploma, the GED, which has now been taken over by Pearson, has also been made much more difficult.  Within the next few years, we face the prospect of hundreds of thousands of students in the state being able to get any kind of high school certification, with ELL students, special needs students and students in high poverty districts being especially victimized.

There are some special interests in the state who welcome this crisis. They see it as an opportunity to take over whole districts, replace public schools with charter schools, or hire consulting firms to undertake "school turnaround" strategies in schools with low graduation rates. You can be sure that teachers will be blamed for that crisis, and put under fierce pressure to squeeze test results out of terrified students

But the impact will not only be felt on the high school level. As panic about low graduation rates filters through the system, educators from Pre-K up will feel the pressure to make students test ready and make testing and test prep and integral part of the school experience when exploration and play and the arts should be integral parts of the curriculum

In short, the education system in the entire state will be held hostage to the gradution crisis

If you think test pressure are bad now, wait till you see what they are like in three or four years when the Regents are entirely Common Core aligned

It is time for parents and teachers and students to organize NOW to demand that there be alternative paths to graduation other than the Regents Diploma and the GED. Otherwise schools in NY State will be in full scale panic mode from Pre-K to 12 grade

Thursday, May 14, 2015

R.I.P Derrick Griffith

I have terrible news from the Amtrak crash. I just found out that Derrick Griffith, the founding principal of CUNY Prep, and one of the most talented educators I have ever known, was one of those who died in that terrible tragegy. Derrick not only was responsible for founding a school that created a place for hundreds, and eventually, thousands of students other schools had given up on, he was also indirectly responsible for creating the Bronx Berlin Youth Exchange, a wonderful cross cultural program that still is linking young people from those two urban centers. With Derrick's support, a teacher at CUNY Prep, Katie Belanger Wilson, made that school the official NY Partner in this amazing initiative. Derrick, who left CUNY Prep and is now an administrator at Medgar Evers, was the single most effective principal I have ever met in reaching and motivating young people who had dropped out of school and who had learned to trust few adults. He was a precious gift to our world of educators, and an even more precious gift to the young people of New York City. His death is a loss of incalculable proportions to everyone who worked with him, had been mentored by him, had been inspired by him. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, but his shining example will remain with me as long as I am in a classroom and as long as I work with young people. R.I.P. Derrick Griffith. My friend. My hero.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A Conversation During Testing Season

" Mom, Can I Opt Out next year? The tests are really stupid and I want to make a statement that testing is out of control and we need time for things that kids really like"
"Honey, I agree with you, but the principal and superintendent have told me that we can't let kids like you Opt Out because the test scores in the district will go down"
"No offense Ma, but who cares?"
" They care- a lot. They are scared. And after what they told me I am scared too"
" Ma, I've never known you to be scared of anything"
"Well what they said was pretty scary! They said that if the test scores go down- which they will if strong students Opt Out- the state will take over the district, fire the principal and the teachers and replace the public school with one of those charter schools where the kids are so scared of doing poorly on tests that they pee in their pants!"
"Ma, it sounds to me that they are more interested in saving their jobs than in protecting their students"
"Maybe Hon, but though things are bad now, they could get worse. I don't want you peeing in your pants in school"

Monday, May 11, 2015

When Veteran Teachers are Called "Developing"- The Orwellian Language of School Reform

All around the country, the story is the same. Numbers crunching administrators and evaluators, some who have never taught or only taught a few years, go into the classrooms of teachers who have inspired students for decades, mark a few things off on a checklist, and then, after consulting student test scores, assign them labels- "Beginning" "Developing" "Ineffective"- which erase a lifetime of achievement. Beyond the humiliation, beyond the destruction of careers, lies a contempt for history which is the hallmark of all dictatorial regimes. Whether you do it to an individual or an entire population, erase their past and you can more easily destroy their humanity. Such has been wreckage of lives and reputations registered by what is euphemistically called "School Reform," whose excesses are still going on unchecked. Inevitably, cruelty to teachers  leads to cruelty to children, which the Opt Out movement is trying to address. But even if Opt Out succeeds, it won't be able to restore the jobs and reputations of hundreds of thousands, if not millions of veteran teachers, unfairly humiliated and forced out of the profession they loved.When 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Seven Deadly Sins of Educational "Reform"- A Buffalo Story by Publius

The Seven Deadly Sins (+1) of Educational “Reform” St. Bonaventure is a small, sleepy Franciscan catholic university in Olean, NY. Located among the gently rolling hills of the Allegheny Mountains. There is no prettier part of the country to visit in the Fall. The leaves of the Black Walnut, White Oak, Mountain Ash trees take on the vibrant hues of autumn while the bounty of Red Delicious, Cortland, Paula Red, McInstosh and Ida Reds ripen in the apple orchards. These bucolic surroundings inspire the undergraduates and Friars alike to love learning and to give kindly to their community. The university is named for St. Bonaventure who named by St. Francis of Assisi himself when he proclaimed “O buona ventura” after his prayers healed the young sickly boy. St. Bonaventure alumni include former NBA great Bob Lanier, six Pulitzer Prize recipients and five former Congressman. Bonnies also claims (or maybe disclaims) a former New York gubernatorial candidate whose campaign was derailed by his threatening antics and the release of a spate of emails containing sexist and racist remarks so vile the details are better left to history’s dustbin. That person now sits on the Buffalo Public Schools Board of Education purporting to have a mandate to close “failing” public schools and open profitable charters. That person who has wreaked bad fortune upon the kids of Buffalo’s public and charter schools is Carl Paladino. Nary a board meeting passes without his scripted claim that “I’m here for the children.” Recently, he has stopped making that false claim because the public’s boos and jeers drowned him into silence. To his credit, he marches forward undaunted, brash and loathed. Lying may be considered a venial sin. Lying in vain to claim concern for children as a ruse to profit financially may not be so venial. Educated in the liberal catholic theology of the 1960s, Carl’s sins could betray his alma mater and certainly betray his faith. His actions will speak to the seven deadly sins, plus one. Luxuria. The unbridled desire for money, fame and power. Tapestry Charter School is housed in a building owned by Carl’s son (only recently having been transferred to his possession from Carl himself). This, he and the Buffalo News claim, absolve him of any conflict of interest. Tapestry pays just short of $1,000,000 a year in rent. That’s roughly the salary of twenty teachers not teaching. The building cost $8 million to build, minus approximately $1 million in tax abatements and credits. Add in a 39% tax credit on investments in NYS and whoever owns that building is making a tidy profit. Soon the debt service will be (or already has been) satisfied by public tax dollars. Yet, the public does not and will never own the building. Carl claims Tapestry is a success. That was until, at a Board meeting a local education advocate obliterated this fact noting that minority, lower socioeconomic-status males perform well below state averages. Is using tax dollars to profit at the expense of a poor child’s education and wanting more lustful? Gula: Overindulgence of anything to point of waste, often at the expense of the needy. In addition to Tapestry, Carl’s charter school empire, though murky and hard to pin down includes the Charter School for the Applied Technologies among many others. It is housed in the former Holy Angels academy, another casualty of declining economics, Catholicism and community. It is New York’s largest charter housing grades K-12. In grades K-5, the classes average 140 students. Grades 6-8 average 130. Grade nine averages 120 and the school graduates 110. All the while, CSAT enjoys “not-for-profit” status, pays rent and kicks out the kids who they do not want. Is kicking poor children out of a school while claiming great academic success and reaping great profits gluttonous? Avaritia: A ravenous desire to possess material possessions beyond one’s needs. This winter saw the rebirth of grassroots democracy in Buffalo. Parents, students, community organizers, teachers and administrators alike attended Board meetings over and over. As the Carl’s crew continued to postpone, delay, ignore and obfuscate, the crowds grew larger, more vocal and overtly angered. Their plan was to move Tapestry and other local charter schools into four public buildings for free because the schools are considered “failing.” Even by Carl’s standards, he hit a new low when he called the district’s lawyer and parliamentarian “ignorant.” What great act of ignorance had this woman committed? None. She was and eventually did rule that the Board majority could not close debate as per Roberts Rules without a six-person vote. Carl complained while some stated, “We’ll be here as long as it takes to get this right for the students of Buffalo.” He retorted, “I don’t have all day. I have a business rot run.” The privatizer’s plan thwarted, Carl retreated to pouting and checking his cell phone. Is wanting to kick students in public schools out of their home school so that students in charter schools can have the building for free, while their previous building was slated to house a new rent-paying charter school greedy? Acedia: Failing to do what is right. With such a strong Franciscian education, it is perplexing that his deeds fail to reach the measure of his own education. Carl constantly does what is wrong. He harangues students and schools as failing, only presents a business-minded reform agenda replete with bottom-line favorable “reforms” and absent any initiatives that improve education. But, after all, he is a businessman. If he were an educator, he would defend the students and teachers in the Buffalo Schools; he would defend the public from the avarice of those who would take from the nation’s poorest children only to give more to the very few and sinfully wealthy; and he would suggest real educational reform that improves learning … not just the bottom-line. It is as if he sees the public coffers as his largesse oblige. Is not working in the public’s best interests sloth? Ira: The inability to control feelings of hatred and anger to such a degree that it causes conflict. “No.” That is the terse yet honest response Carl gave to a mother who asked if the Board would allow any public input during the current search for a new Superintendent. Threats to sue for slander are never followed up because even Carl (yes, he’s a lawyer also) knows his case would have no merit. Telling the truth about a conflict of interest causes no injury legally; it does appear to hurt Carl’s fragile ego. When a local African American woman Principal refused to respond to Carl’s personal lawyer concerning a work matter, Carl scribed an epic tirade full of accusations, insinuations and malice. The selfishness of racism and misogyny shown through painfully bright. When the current Superintendent did not do the privatizer’s bidding, Carl whined about his “treachery and betrayal.” Is bullying those who are not compliant to your will wrath? Invidia: Coveting your neighbor’s characteristics, gifts or possessions. For a guy whose income comes overwhelmingly from the public coffers, using one’s position on a school board to direct expenditures to your – I’m sorry, your son’s – real estate company clearly seems incongruous. Bathing in a sea of plenty from high interest rates, buildings sold to charter companies for ten times their market value and a steady stream of public tax dollars rolling in every month, one would think this largesse would satiate. It does not. It begs the question: who is the real welfare queen? Carl was recently asked what he thought of the long-overdue teachers contract and the fact that Buffalo teachers, on average, earn $20,000 less than the average of surrounding districts. When asked what type of raise the teaches should get, he said something like, “They’re not getting another nickel.” Is profiting from a steady stream of public tax dollars while wanting more and refusing to pay employees fair wages envy? Superbia: A sense of superiority coupled with the disdain for other’s accomplishments. Hell-bent on closing public schools, Carl was asked what concern he had for the 249 teachers who were losing their jobs in the schools the Board insists on closing. His curt response was, “I don’t give a fuck.” No question here. This is arrogant hubris. One last biblical sin will bring Carl’s actions and lack of moral character full circle. Vangloria: Unjustified boasting. Culled all together, Carl’s actions as described demonstrate the real dangers of his narcissism and the narcissism of neo-liberal educational “reform.” Last week’s public Board meeting marked an important turning point in Buffalo’s struggle against privatization. The public showed its disdain for the Board majority. It was repeatedly made clear that the public had lost faith in the Board. One speaker demanded that Carl resign, his hate stare was called out directly by another complimented with a “I’m not afraid of you” retort. Compounding this tension, the Board majority stayed mute all night. The longer they said nothing, the more angered the public became. At one point, an impassioned mother put the Board majority on notice proclaiming vociferously: “When you try to take the power from the people, the people will take the power back.” The public was not polite that night. The Board’s collective silence was refreshing, but it revealed something even more powerful. It was one of those we-know-that you-know-that-we-don’t-believe-your-rhetoric-anymore-type of evenings. It was an historic, but dangerous turning point. In 2013, Carol Burris cited internationally renown education scholar Thomas Sergiovanni’s book, Moral Leadership, to make her argument that the New York State Department of Education, under John King’s calamitous leadership, had lost the moral authority to lead. The same argument applies in Buffalo. Carl and his cast of characters have not built a “followership.” Put in other words, they have no public support. One speaker even publicly revoked Carl’s supposed mandate by proclaiming, “Listen to the people here tonight: we are your new mandate.” The absence of moral authority does not mean the majority voting bloc on the Buffalo Public School Board has lost it power. In fact, that’s all they have left: power. They have a 5-4 voting bloc and their loyalty to each other is unyielding. But power sans moral authority renders their power absolute. History is full of examples of those who have usurped the public’s power, tried to silence their collective voice and lost the consent of the govern. Like educational “reformers” across the US, the current Buffalo Board of Education majority has ripped apart the fabric of democracy and shredded the social contract. Lord Acton’s words best describe the fine mess Buffalo’s Board of Education has created; “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are always bad men.”

Buffalo is a microcosm of what is happening across the US. Fortunately, History also suggests that it is going to get worse before it gets better. Power does not yield power easily. Absolute power is even more resolute in maintaining the status quo. The battle in Buffalo has been long. At this point, it appears the well-funded, well-heeled privatizers are tiring and the battle-tested public is energized, organized and pissed-off. The public is resolute. The privatizers are likely to summons more troops given their support from local media, billionaires, our governor and our president. Wealth and arrogance sustain, but democracy always prevails. Stay tuned. One could imagine St. Francis lamenting in his grave, “O male ventura.”

Saturday, May 9, 2015

" When Different is the Same" Reflections on "School Choice" by Professor Lori Martin

One of the things I admire about my pastor, Raymond Jetson, is his desire and commitment to be different. His life's work is illustrative of a willingness to explore new and innovative ways to address complex social problems in collaborative ways. He is a leader in the true sense of the word. His goal is to be a church without walls that transforms lives and communities.

 Pastor Jetson's approach is arguably different than the perceptions of people about some community leaders. Our Schools Our Excellence, an initiative of MetroMorphosis, which Jetson created, is a great example of a different approach to addressing the educational needs of our children. The initiative was founded on the principle that every child deserves an excellent education. Sadly, every child is not getting an excellenct education. Students within the same school districts-even students in the same building-are not receiving an excellent education.

This is especially the case in magnet and charger schools in districts where many of the traditional public schools are considered "failing."In the East Baton Rouge School District, most of the majority minority schools in North Baton Rouge are considered failing. At the same time, new charter schools are cropping up across the parish.

There is a highly sought after magnet school, Baton Rouge Magnet High School, in the district that is popular, in part, because of the many advanced placement course offerings. The school is 38% white and about 43% black. About 34% of students receive free or reduced lunch. The school district is about 45% black and over 80% of students qualified for free or reduced lunch as of October 2014, before recent changes making all students in the district eligible. Another magnet school, Lee High Magnet School, which is in year two of transiting from a failed traditional public school to a magnet school, is increasing in popularity because of a focus on science, engineering, and math, and dual enrollment courses with the state's flagship institution, among other reasons.

 Traditional public schools either offer no such classes, or dual enrollment classes with Baton Rouge Community College. As Lee High Magnet continues to transition, many minority students who survived the turbulent first year may get to the mountain top, but seeing the promised land is doubtful. They are in a "different" situation than many in their cohort who were ill-prepared to maintain the required grade point average and were ultimately sentenced to serving out the remainder of their high school careers in failing neighborhood schools. The students that survived will not have access to all the promised technological changes, internships, additional course offerings, etc. as these will be phased in for new cohorts.

 For example, new cohorts are scheduled to enjoy Chrome Books with e-versions of all required textbooks and older cohorts will continue to haul around heavy and costly textbooks in new aged buildings that don't have lockers or desks where books can be stored. EBR schools are not alone in these regards. Administrators of magnet and charter schools in districts with "failing" schools across the country apparently read from the same script, which requires the repeated use of the term, "different." Magnet and charter schools, the administrators often contend, will have "different" curriculum, or produce "different" results, when compared with traditional public schools, when in fact, many of these schools represent more of the "same." The schools represent the perpetuation of a an unjust system that privileges some people, and is at the same time a continued source of misery and despair for others, especially people of color and the poor.

The celebration of "difference" is in many ways an indictment of the quality of education available to communities of color and the poor. It is also an acknowledgement of the existence of a two-tiered system, which prepares some for success and citizenship, while simultaneously reminding others of their place in a social institution, and in the broader society, that perpetuates inequality all the while extolling the virtues of fairness and justice. It's time to take off the blindfolds and throw out the pacifier that is privilege. According to these administrators of choice schools, considered by some the mouthpieces of a misguided movement to use public schools as a profit generating machine, parents with children in their schools should feel grateful that their children have the opportunity to enjoy a "different" academic experience. On the contrary, parents, community leaders, school administrators, teachers, elected officials, etc. everywhere should all feel the "same" moral outrage. Our Schools Our Excellence got it right. "Every" child deserves an excellent education and no one should turn a blind eye to the injustices that are preventing the initiative's rallying cry from becoming a reality.

Latrice Martin is associate professor of sociology and African American Studies. She is the author of Big Box Schools: Race, Education, and the Danger of the Wal-Martization of Public Schools in America.

A Call to Indict America- Reflections on Michael Brown, Freddie Gray and "The New Jim Crow" by Madelyn Murphy

In many ways, the criminal stigma is far more harmful to African Americans than the slave stigma due to its lack of outright recognition of race. What Michelle Alexander in her book, The New Jim Crow, calls, “race neutral language” has, in many ways, harmed communities of color in ways slavery never could have. This is so because, unlike racial language, words like criminal, drug war, and felon do not imply a racial focus, and so their racist intents are shrouded by this rhetoric of seemingly race neutrality. However, as Alexander, Ferguson, and Baltimore argue, further analysis reveals these terms to be anything but devoid of racist intention.

The most explicit example is the War on Drugs that the Reagan administration began in the mid-late 1980’s. In truth, the term “drug war” has no mention of race, and neither did Reagan’s other favorite term, “welfare queen.” However, what both of these terms manifest in our minds are images of poor, dangerous, lazy, and undeserving black people, images fuzed into American subconscious by the media. The most harmful product to emerge from the War on Drugs was not the draconian legislations and sentences (i.e. making non-violent drug crimes have overly long and punitive sentences followed by a ripping of constitutional rights such as voting and housing). Rather, the most harmful effect of the War on Drugs has been how it has perverted American mentality concerning African Americans.
Reagan utilized the media in order to recast African Americans and other minorities as criminals rather than as citizens. The War on Drugs’ illogical emphasis on crack cocaine rather than on regular cocaine colored the movement completely. There is no difference in harm between cocaine and crack cocaine. The difference is in who uses them. Cocaine is used primarily by middle/upper class, young whites. Crack cocaine is used by poor communities of color, and in fact is used less than cocaine. More whites deal and use than those of color, but are arrested and jailed far less. Because of the heavy sentencing and policing in communities of color, those of color, rather than whites, are depicted as the true drug criminals of America.
The increased employment of police presence and stop and frisks in poor areas of color rather than in white suburbs allow for police to arrest more minorities than whites only because more people of color are stopped because they “look like criminals” rather than middle/upper class, white college kids. This is why people of color in poor areas refer to police presence in their neighborhoods as “the occupation,” making home for these people feel like colonized territory rather than their own neighborhood.
These stop and frisks are determined, according to Alexander, not by crime, but by race. It is more likely for an officer to stop and frisk a black man than a white woman simply because the media has been utilized to paint people of color out to be criminals. In today’s society, to look like a criminal is determined by the color of your skin, and further by the label “felon,” if you were unlucky enough to be charged with petty, non-violent crimes that the ruling race commits in larger proportions (but receives far less sentencing) than you do.
This “media bonanza” as Alexander calls it is seen in how the media tried to justify the deaths of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray by releasing either a video of Brown depicting him as stealing when in fact he was not, or by releasing Gray’s criminal record of petty, non-violent crimes. By releasing this information (some false) on both men, the media was telling the public that these men were criminals, and that sometimes criminals die because of cops, but they die because the cops are trying to “protect” the public from the “danger” of these “criminals.” It was an attempt to criminalize these two men, release the cops from persecution, and to ultimately justify murder. And because both of these men were black and came from black communities with high crime rates (due to the disproportionate policing in those communities as compared to white communities) it was relatively easy for the media to alter the image of someone’s dead son to the image of just another dead criminal. By labeling them “criminals,” the media is not only justifying their deaths, but negating the dignity and preciousness of each man’s life.
This use of media representation and criminalization of people of color in these two instances was not limited to Brown and Gray. Rather, it was extended to the protesters, a majority of whom were people of color. IN Ferguson, before violent protests even began, the city employed not only a large concentration of police officers to surround the peaceful protesters, but SWAT teams. The presence of a militarized police force visually suggests that these protesters are not protesters hoping for and demanding positive change, but criminals so dangerous that government forces used to deal with TERRORISTS are being used to deal with these people. The militarization of the police (thanks to the Byrne Program) has funneled thousands upon thousands of dollars and military resources into turning the police force into an untrained army, and those living in those occupied communities (usually communities of color) into, essentially, enemies of the state.
The thoroughly race-prejudiced, biased, and unreliable news source, Fox News, has played a heavy and harmful hand in painting the protesters in both Ferguson and Baltimore to be criminals rather than activists. In the past week, Fox’s favorite term, it seems, has been, “looters,” a term applied in heavy doses to the protesters in Baltimore. The same was done in Ferguson, and images of black people in fiery neighborhoods being met by SWAT teams suggests that these people are dangerous criminals, and that if they die (as many have) then America will be safer for it.
If one was to replace the black person in the photographs of the riots with a white person, the public’s response would differ entirely. Outbursts of America being a police state would ring out, likening America to places like Communist Russia and other totalitarian governments would plaster every news source. The mainstream media and public would be upset. But they’re not. The truth is, it isn’t a white person in these photographs. It isn’t a white man lying dead on the pavement. The statistic isn’t 1 in every 3 white men will serve time in prison. It isn’t a white man that comes to mind when the word, “drug dealer” is said. It’s not white people who were enslaved and further abused by the institutions of convict-leasing and Jim Crow. It isn’t an issue of “White Lives Matter,” because white lives have always mattered. It isn’t white society who bears the criminal stigma; it is white society who has MADE that stigma in order to further perpetuate this centuries old system of white supremacy and racial caste.
Alexander argues that America’s obsession with race remains in our past and not our present. It is easier to recognize racism in slavery and segregation than it is in today’s system of mass incarceration, primarily because, as Alexander cites a man saying in her work, “Felony is the new N-word.” Just as in the drug war, today’s incidents in Ferguson and Baltimore have perverted the public’s conception of black people rather than display these protesters, both violent and nonviolent, as who they truly are are: people who are suffering, desperately crying out for help and for recognition as human beings.
In Watts, Los Angeles in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr., a proponent of nonviolence, said that the “looters” were not looters, but rather social protestors, that the violence was not criminal, but a last resort cry for help from a people who felt so voiceless that only fire and violence could get somebody - anybody - to listen to them. But instead, they were painted by the media as criminals, and their cause was immediately devalued. But what else could they have done? Their voices, their actions... all devalued by a government that professes to care, but in reality could care less as long as racial caste is maintained. Race wasn’t never mentioned, but didn’t have to be. It was, has been, and is the primary factor according to Alexander that drives the American institution of law and order, and it is what keeps dead black men and women from being valued as human beings. Policing and imprisonment doe not prevent crime, but increases it, and any statistic will prove that.
Today, American crime rates have gone down, but the incarceration rate is at 2 million incarcerated, making America the leading incarceration nation in the world. The land of freedom is the land of imprisonment. And most of those incarcerated are nonviolent drug dealers and/or users, and most are black and brown men. What the media and race neutral language is doing to America, Ferguson, and Baltimore is desensitizing us as human beings. The news on these events has not shown us evidence of the continuation of racism in this nation, or the tragic endings of two human lives, but rather criminals who shouldn’t have rushed the cop or disrespected law and order. The media does not show us how crime is in essence inescapable in these communities because of a lack of funding for crime prevention institutions, such as drug rehabilitation centers or for education. Rather, this money has gone to crime punishment, to heavy policing and militarization. The public is not invited to try to understand why the rioters are rioting, to try to understand what could have caused this outburst of pain and suffering. Rather, the media labels them criminals and we (white America) are allowed to hate them for their label rather than love them for their dignity.
“Seeing race,” Alexander writes, “is not the problem. Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem.” The problem with mass incarceration, Ferguson, and Baltimore is the lack of a humanist vision, a vision that has been downcast by the media’s frenzy of depicting communities of color as communities of criminals. If we are to ever progress as a nation that actually embodies what we are supposed to stand for - life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all - we need to stop promoting an environment that perpetuates this selection of who deserves citizenship, respect, and life. No matter the skin color, socio-economic status, gender, or location, human beings should be seen as human beings and nothing less. Racism is a system that seeks to delegate who gets to be treated as human and who does not, and this has been carried on through mass incarceration and the media.
The only way to combat this is for people to stop seeing some as deserving of humanity, and to start seeing all human beings as deserving of it, and this needs to start with white people, especially white people of my generation. As the ruling race, we need to realize that the longer we show indifference and the longer we withhold understanding, the more death and injustice will persist. We must help start what Alexander sees as an essential human rights movement with the issue of mass incarceration at the forefront. We need to stop labeling, start learning our history, and end willful ignorance of the mess this country’s system of justice has become. In this country, we are all American citizens - black, white, or brown - and as one nation we will not be free until we stop treating our citizens as our enemies. Freedom cannot truly exist when only a few get it - that is NOT freedom.
Alexander closes her book with citing a passage from James Baldwin’s book, The Fire This Time. In it, he writes, “we cannot be free until they are free.” America will not truly be America until all are treated as Americans, until all are treated as human beings. It will not be America until when the word “looter” is not designated to a black protester, but rather until there is understanding and respect for their suffering. It will not be America until the word “drug dealer” brings to mind an actual drug dealer, and not a color. It will not be America until the lives of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray are treated as lives, and not as problems. It will not be America until the question posed by W.E.B. Du Bois is not “how does it feel to be a problem?”, but “how does it feel to be a human being?” When America stops turning people into criminals, and then punishing them for acting out the cruel parts they have been forcefully given, that is when America will be America, and not Jim Crow’s nation. There is unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore because America has made it an environment of unrest. If anyone is to be indicted, it is not the rioters, but America, and it is up to the privileged of my generation to start the indicting.