I always feel compelled to give a cautionary note to people who say that children are so resilient that they can roll with situations that adversely affect them. This is definitely an outmoded myth that is no longer supported by data or the experiences of the people who interact with children and young people on a regular basis. Something very bad has happened in our community, and we cannot move on as if nothing has happened.
I was saddened to hear from teachers the number of districts or principals who forbade any discussion in the schools or classrooms about the fatal shooting of Mike Brown by Ferguson cop Darren Wilson. Yes, I know, this is the way that St. Louis handles discussions about race, but as educators looking to connect the classroom with real-life events, it was (and still is) a potent teachable moment. This is how you make education relevant to our students.
It came as no surprise that Normandy Middle School recently booted 20 percent of its students for disruptive behavior. The solution to the problem was to bring parents in to sign behavior and academic contracts about expectations. This response is not just insensitive; it’s incompetence at the highest level.
Let’s remember that Mike was a 2014 graduate of Normandy High School. Normandy Middle and High School students know what happened to Mike Brown. They know he was unarmed and gunned down in broad daylight and left on the streets of Ferguson for the entire world to see. Some of them may have even participated in the Ferguson protests, brought to the West Florissant Avenue epicenter by parents, relatives or friends.
They know that the police officer who shot Mike and those who were part of the police force to intimidate protestors were mainly white. They know that those police look like the same ones who hassle them in their neighborhoods. Finally, the young people know that they look like Mike Brown.
What are they supposed to do with all of these “they knows”? Do we really expect them to stuff all of their fears, anger, frustrations and anxieties into a neat little bag, leave the bag at home and come to school ready to learn?
Let’s add to the mix the pressure cooker that the Normandy district has been in for the last couple years resulting in a state takeover. Existing teachers were fired and had to re-apply, allowing for less-experienced teachers (requiring less pay) to fill those slots. Teachers face the high stress of achieving academic success with increased classroom sizes and little support.
Adults often marvel at how children seem to shake off trauma. While it may seem like we’ve tapped into the resiliency of these young people, they have found a way with their limited coping skills to compartmentalize that trauma. It’s only temporary, and eventually some event or incident will trigger those deeply suppressed feelings and result in some form of emotional melt-down or misdirected violence.
As in most districts, students are at the bottom of the food chain in Normandy. They are feeling all the stressors being brought to them by administrators and teachers, on top of the stressors of living in a post-Mike Brown era. Their behaviors are justified and reasonable. What looks like disruptive behavior is often a cry for help, a need for assurances and for compassion.
What do we hand them? A suspension slip. Normandy has one of the highest suspensions rates in the region, yet the district keeps acting as if this is a viable solution to the multi-tiered problems we ask our children to shoulder when grown folks are struggling to address these structural, systemic issues.
One solution to the disruptive behaviors is to get to the root causes. As starters, we need to get professionals on site to do both individual and group counseling daily. There needs to be healthy outlets for aggression, such as after-school programs that engage the kids in social and recreational activities daily.
Our first responsibility as empowered adults is to protect those entrusted to our care. A punitive approach is a quick fix with long-term consequences. Listen to the young people; they’re trying to tell us something.