Beginning with the 2017-2018 school year, teachers in Illinois will be required to set aside instruction time to teach students the do’s and don’ts of interacting with police.
Some favor initiatives like the one Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner signed into law August 5. iHalt founder Judy Williams, for example, believes “it’ll be a really good thing for educators to work with our children to talk about some of the rules of engagement in our society, and involve our law enforcement” in those conversations.
And Dr. Edwin T. Johnson, a professor at the University of Maryland University College and a commissioner for the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, said he’s “all for” such mandated instruction, though he acknowledges “there are lots of uncontrollable variables” with such encounters, namely accounting for implicit biases individuals might hold.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said these same implicit biases confirmed by multiple recent reports and investigations to exist in police departments also exist in schools.
“I think what has happened is that policing is in some ways … just like [what has happened in] schooling over the course of a 10- or 15-year period of time: [people] got much too focused on sanctions and [the notion] that people were presumed to just pull themselves up by the bootstraps, and if something happened that was either a perceived or a real violation of the law, you throw the book at them,” she said. “So in schools, it was zero tolerance, in terms of discipline. It was sanctioning if the test scores were not so high. In communities, it was stop and frisk … and those types of things.”
“The responsibility was all on the individual, and if the individual didn’t get it right, the individual was going to be thrown out of school and thrown into jail. And that is the system that we are trying to disrupt, in terms of schooling and in terms of policing,” Weingarten said.
Though she acknowledges “there are a lot of other complications with this” and cautions against making the issue “just about education,” Weingarten said public education has a threefold role in disrupting these systems.
First, she said, “There is a role in terms of breaking down barriers and breaking down bias and the acknowledgement in this country that there is still pervasive racism and there’s a disproportionate impact of sanctioning if you are black and brown than if you are white. And there is still white privilege — there has to be a big recognition of that.”
Second, she continued, “education can play a huge role, in terms of disruption of poverty.”
Disruption of poverty
Johnson agreed, pointing to Baltimore as a key example of generations of failure by the public school system to help counteract poverty leading to the boiling point of tensions the nation has watched unfold in the case of Freddie Gray.
Acknowledging that “Baltimore’s public education system was not the cause of the city’s condition,” Johnson said “it was unprepared to counteract or address the conditions” facing some of the students coming through the system.
“The needs of these students far outweigh those of students from more affluent school districts nearby. Additionally, these same districts tend to offer higher teacher salaries,” he said. “A teacher choosing to work in Howard, Montgomery or Prince George's Counties on average will earn $10,000 more annually than they would working in Baltimore City … with less of the added social challenges found in Baltimore City School neighborhoods. If a teacher can earn more money with less stressful challenges, then why work in Baltimore City?”
It isn’t just a lack of human resources that contribute to the city — and a number of urban and rural districts across the country — being ill-equipped to handle some of the effects of poverty in schools.
“In addition to lower salaries, Baltimore City Schools have been historically allocated less financial resources than necessary to appropriately serve their students,” Johnson said.
Pointing to “poor fiscal and physical conditions,” Johnson said “it is not surprising that Baltimore City Schools have traditionally produced poor outcomes.”
Johnson’s observations tie into the third role of public education in combating some of the present challenges: To “level the playing field,” Weingarten said.
“You can’t just expect that somebody’s going to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, you have to make sure they have the resources they need to get an education,” she said. This includes a wraparound approach to restorative justice, but it also includes making sure students have the social-emotional resources they need to overcome what Johnson referred to as “post-traumatic stress disorder” associated with their daily home lives — which creates an inherent distrust of everyone, including police officers and educators.
A proactive approach
Brandon Johnson, a fourth grade teacher at Browne Education Campus in Washington, DC, said establishing trust and rapport with the students can be a difficult, but critical task.
“I think that everything that teachers will say is that teaching is more about relationships than it is about learning,” he said. “Trust is huge for” students, especially those who may be faced with environments that seem more like a war zone than a suitable living and learning environment.
“If they’re in communities where they’re constantly being surveyed by police,” or they’re walking by police officers to get to class, “there’s almost like a level of defense that you have to really have to work to break down,” he said. “I see it play out in academics the most, because it creates the strongest barrier between teacher and students. It’s an added stressor that they are forced to deal with that makes my job different.”
Johnson said open conversations about things students are watching play out on the news, as it relates to police violence in particular at a campus with a high concentration of African-American students, is key to helping build the trust between educator and student.
“It’s so important, just because if we think about it, students spend the most amount of the time … inside the school,” he continued. “They’re building an understanding of what’s going on in the world, what the world means to them.”
“What a student experiences and what they come to school with definitely impacts how they view themselves, how they view the world — and it translates into how they perform,” he added.
Part of providing a level playing field, he believes, is helping shape students’ ideas about morality, and making sure the sense of what’s right and wrong is evenly applied.
“We tell our kids to always treat someone the way you want to be treated, but then they go out to the world and they see adults mistreating” each other or, worse, young people, he said, adding it’s essential educators take on the work of “dissecting what’s wrong with those [occurrences] and applying a moral value to that so that we can reduce the likelihood that these things might occur” again.
“In policing, it’s the same kind of relationship based kind of ruling, you have to have fair laws, fair rules that are evenly enforced,” Weingarten said. Just as there has to be “a fair code of conduct in schools, you have to have fair laws in society, but they have to be consistently enforced. And people have to actually understand each other.”
Johnson believes “we still need to talk to them about interacting with the police.”
He said in schools where officer presence is a part of the daily reality, the personalities of the officers occupying the school grounds play a large part in students’ outlooks toward police when they return to their home communities.
If students’ only interaction with school resource officers is when they’re being disciplined or put out of school, this doesn’t bode well for their attitudes about police overall, he said. But if the officers interact regularly and engage students on topics that are of importance to them, it goes a long way.
He referenced one female resource officer who “was seen in the community, but she also would come into the classroom and host girls’ groups,” which “personalized who she was. It was no longer ‘officer,’ it was no longer the code names that they use. She was a person. There was no longer a fear. There was more of a connection and an understanding, and that was on both parts.”
When she’d see them in the communities, “there wasn’t this tension on both sides. It was more of a relationship,” he added.
The same idea is relevant to educators who may need to confront their own biases and approaches to discipline and zero-tolerance in the classroom.
“People do not instinctively know how to deal with every other culture and every other situation other than the one that you were born into,” Weingarten said. “That is really important in terms of an understanding about what your privilege might be or what your privilege might not be. … How do you break down those barriers if you don’t really and deeply understand those barriers?”
“When you talk about building capacity, you have to talk about how do we diversify our teaching force,” Weingarten said, just like conversations are being had within police departments about the need to diversify those ranks. “The way that you learn all of that is clinical teaching.”
She also stressed a need for a shift in emphasis to project-based and experiential learning over testing and a focus on “pedagogies and cultural competencies,” over blanket zero-tolerance policies. If the focus is entirely on curricula and testing, then education will continue to miss the boat on preparing students to be citizens, she said.