J is my little brother. He is 5 feet and 6 inches tall, weighing about 150 pounds. He attends Leadership Prep Brownsville Middle Academy Charter School in Brooklyn, NY. He is in the 6th grade and significantly larger than his age group peers. Two weeks into his 6th grade year, J gets suspended for slapping a student. His suspension letter reports: “Specifically, J slapped another student in the face while riding the school bus.” He is not allowed to take the school bus for two weeks in addition to the three days he is not allowed to attend classes. He has attended a total of 7 school days out of 10, which equates to a 70% attendance record thus far.
I asked J for his story. “I did not slap that girl.” He is resolute and drops his hands at the sides of both his legs. And when I try to give him every reason he might have had motive, he adamantly insists that he did not slap his classmate, and that he instead went to block her blow and knocked her glasses off in motion.
“Yeh, sure. Cuz I was born yesterday.” I give him leeway. “J, dude, you’re growing. You got ahead of yourself. Maybe you didn’t mean to hit her hard. You don’t have to lie.” Maybe this wasn’t the best choice of words. But I could see the same frustration on his face that would seize the countenances of my black male students when they were wrongfully penalized. I didn’t want to do that to my little brother. “Okay. I’m going to believe you. I’m going to your school tomorrow.”
The Brownsville Middle Academy is one of the highly reviewed charter schools under the UnCommon Schools public charter school system. It is one of two schools in the building, and one of the 23 Uncommon Schools in New York that aims to give poor kids (“poor” is unp.c. for those who qualify for free-lunch) a fair shot at graduating from college. Before showing up at the school, I call the main office to schedule an appointment with the principal or someone who could explain to me why J deserved such a harsh punishment. Let’s be clear, banning J from the school bus for two full weeks punishes his parents more so than him. They can either hustle to coordinate drop-off and pick up times, or chose faith in J making it to school safely on his own via public transportation being black, male, and adult-sized at 11 years old on the L train.
At 8 am, I leave a message with the secretary that I’d like a conversation with the principal about J’s suspension. I am assured that I would receive a call back. Again, I call at 9:30. Still no promise of a return call, and no way to schedule an appointment. How does the principal not have an appointment book? By 11pm, I grow uneasy watching J sit on the couch when I know he needs to be at school. By 12pm, I am seated at the front desk of the Administrative Office. I wait and wait.
What a privilege it was to not be a working parent so that I could attend to my brother’s school matters. Most working parents do not have a flexible time-table; they work during school hours and that’s that. Nor would they have the time to be persistent enough to tease out an appointment with school authority either. I wondered how few parents have the privilege of time to be persistent, because for poor people, time is a privilege. Besides this, most poor parents simply don’t assume that it’s their right to show up to their child’s school whenever they want and for whatever reason. Over the years, I’ve noticed a distinction between parents of different backgrounds engage with their child’s school. Middle class parents tend to feel entitled to show up, ask questions, make academic demands of their child’s school, even if what they were asking for was inappropriate or outright impossible. Parents who’s first language isn’t English demonstrate the polar opposite manners; hardly anything to say besides “Thank You!” and “Okay”. Black parents (yall, hear me out) have a relative easy time coming to their child’s school if there’s a fight to be had on the physical or emotional well-being of their child. Seldom do they show up for anything else though. Even middle class black parents have little to say about what is on their child’s curriculum map, what’s in the student conduct code, or what’s fair about school policy. They don’t review the curriculum maps, the content, the materials and rarely make demands about the need for more kinesthetic activities or black historical texts. But if someone calls their child a name they don’t like, or talks about their hair, Panther moms show up and show out.
I wait to be seen for 3 hours.
At the end of the school day, finally wind gets out that I’m not leaving until some authority addresses me. Out comes Ms. Amy Kiyota, Director of Operations, a cherub-faced seemingly early twenty year old who presumably functions as damage control. She pulls me into a side room, greets me, and thanks me for my patience. She insists that it would be impossible for me have a conversation with the principal as they all have a meeting immediately upon dismissal. She uses lots of fluffy language to assuage my now seething unrest about the topic she learned I came to discuss. She repeatedly refers to the students of the school as “scholars”. She dangles phrases like “for learning” “high standards” “leaders” “zero tolerance” “prepared for college“ in a jumble of sentences that sounds more like a pitch to buy into the school’s mission. She doesn’t speak to the concerns I express about being ignored the whole afternoon. There is barely a moment for me to even mention J’s suspension before I’m invited to accompany her to the doors for dismissal. Before we get up, Ms. Kiyota does clarify one thing for me though: “even for self defense” is a student penalized for inducing physical harm. She gives me her email and assures that the principal would contact me once I sent her an email requesting a planned meeting time.
Despite leaving in poor faith, I receive an email from Principal Mark Stulberg within six hours of sending. He does not acknowledge the failure of my three attempts to simply schedule a meeting with him, but he did the politically safe thing by affirming all the positives I mentioned to him in my very long and very thorough email.
A week later, J is back at school already, and I finally get to have a conversation with Mr.Stulberg. He is a professional educator, and exudes pride in his school. He is approachable and collected upon sight, relaxed shoulders, wide eyes, and slight smile. I listen to his speech about school policy. Again, “zero tolerance” “leaders” and “high standards” seem to weave their way into the justification for J’s suspension. All I ask for are the details of what happened. Mr. Stulberg makes claims that based upon what the other students reported, all affirmed that J “got up, walked over to a girl student, slapped her on the face, and knocked her glasses off,” he says. On the day of suspension, the dean of students wasn’t around, and Mr. Stulberg made the judgment call himself. I ask to see the reports.
Maybe Mr. Stulberg wasn’t prepared for such an explicit request. Ironically, many parents don’t know that it is within their right to ask for proof of your child’s performance. Truth be told, in my Bronx teaching days, I never anticipated needing to present any student work or materials to my parents of color during parent teacher conferences. I would just sit and talk, and parents believed me. Comparatively, middle class parents want to see the grades and hold the graded papers in their hands. I have to be prepared to flip through old quizzes, journals, even tests with their own signatures on them to prove student performance, the good as well as the bad.
Mr. Stulberg retrieves the student reports and read them aloud to me. One after the other, we read four reports of students who were eye witnesses of the said event. Did a single one of them say that J got up, walked over and slapped a girl? Nope! Not a single one.
Now, if you know middle school kids, it’s perhaps the most god awful stage of life, emotionally, socially, and physically. Yet, one thing top tier world class education facilities understand is that the middle schooling years are certainly obliged to teach academics with equal emphasis on socialization skills. It’s critical to use that time to teach kids how to get a grip on their emotions, how to use their words to negotiate through differences, how to apologize with actions, how to grapple with the surging bursts of estrogen and testosterone that torment them. Rich kids fight, pull hair and bully too. And they rarely get suspended for it. Instead, they find themselves meeting with the counselor, who actually has time allotted to counsel them (by the way), and they get mediation with the offended party. Both get guidance on how to use their words to advocate for themselves, as well as, express frustration, disappointment, even anger. Why was J and this student he supposedly assaulted never asked to talk to each other about what happened? Why weren’t they given any guidance about proper conduct on a school bus? And don’t even start to analyze the degradation caused when black boys are unfairly vilified in the learning environment. This is just J’s first round of black manhood versus the world.
I went through the Student Code of Conduct with Mr. Stulberg to discern the behavior violations not met with suspension. There were none. Simple put, every choice of poor conduct was handled with negligence—namely, suspension.
Many folks would retort: “Well, it ain’t the place of the school to teach kids how to behave. It’s the job of the parents!” But you’re fooling yourself if you believe that’s entirely true. Kids come to school to be with their friends. Yes they come to learn, but they are motivated to come to socialize, and all want a positive experience even if that’s not what they’re going to get that day. Why shouldn’t the schoolhouse be a place that they get behavior guidance?
It’s a tough pill to swallow. The schoolhouse has been a socialization institution for forever in the story of man. It is the first place outside the family structure that little people learn to be respectful, to collaborate with others, and to demonstrate independence which they typically don’t get when under the coddling of their parents. Schools may look different across cultures and continents, but the human element requires that we socialize and thereby be socialized to “fit in” with society at large. It’s completely logical and appropriate that school provides a shelter for socialization.
Yes there is an ugly side to this. Historically, our great country used the schoolhouse to “civilize” the Native American Indian and the Negro, making them palatable in a white supremacist society. I went to college across from the historical Carlisle Indian School, which exclusively transformed Indian children in the late 1800’s into western groomed house servants. Black folks were only allowed to receive schooling to be socialized as obedient Christians for hundreds of years. So stop acting like our government would suddenly stop using the school institution to groom it’s underclass.
There is a positive side to this. Schools reflect the hands of society. Schools can catch the slack that parents don’t or simply can’t because if you know a child, you know that it does take a village to raise one well. Today’s parent can’t compete with all of social media’s mixed signally, and so it’s totally reasonable to rely on schools to support nurturing a healthy child. I’m not saying that schools need to be burdened with disciplining delinquent kids. I’ve been hoisted across a room by Blood Gang members that wanted me out of the way so they could jump in a fight in the hallway behind me. Schools must prioritize safety. But if schools and parents collaborated on “teaching” constructive behavior and communication skills (and we don’t have to claim this as perfect world talk either), kids that make behavior mistakes would see the value in choosing responsible action over being reactionary.
World-class top tier international schools mediate conflicts between kids because quality instruction calls for educating the whole child. Why is archaic punitive practices in middle schools still being enforced when the UnCommon Schools claim to be bringing the prep school experience to kids who normally couldn’t afford it?
I say glare into his face and shake my head. I say, “Mr.Stulberg, it doesn’t sound like J got up and maliciously slapped someone at all.”
In one of the reports, a student said that the girl “got up, went over to J, slapped him, so he got mad and slapped her back and she started crying.” Report after report echoes the same words: J “knocked her glasses off.” Mr. Stulberg’s eyes widen.
He does not nod in agreement with my statement, nor does he apologize for misinterpreting the other students’ words. Mr.Stulberg is learned enough to know that the simple words “I’m sorry” would undermine his choice to suspend J. New York educators are equipped with CYA (cover your ass) strategy. Maybe he got the same training I did. Nonetheless, at that point there was an air of tension between us now that it had been made clear that Mr.Stulberg added his own negative language to the accounts, a spin that facilitated slandering J.
I will say this: I truly do believe that Mr. Stulberg is a principled educator who wants to empower his students. Maybe it shocked the hell out of him when it surfaced that some unconscious bias arose in his rash interpretation of what happened on that unsupervised school bus. He is white and male and highly stressed after all. Maybe it was too easy to jump to the conclusion of J’s guilt because a girl was hurt and J is much bigger than her. Either way, J missed three days of school which accounted for 30% of the school year, which was only one week deep at this point. One thing we know for sure is that attendance makes a difference in student performance, and when that student is 11 years old, and black, and male, every minute lost is a tip of the probability scale towards the wrong side.
For J, he feels that his school treated him unfairly, and that no matter what fault is found with him, he will not be able to defend himself. Not even his opinionated fairy-like sister from out of town could win the battle to prove his innocence. Scary.
So folks, alls I’m saying is to keep your eyes open when your kid goes to a charter school just as you would any other public school.