Don’t Kill the Messenger

I was told I have no idea.

A white teacher in Beaumont, Texas, was shown on video violently and repeatedly assaulting a young Black student and I was told I don’t understand. I was told, “it’s hard to keep your cool.” By a teacher, mind you.

Mary Hastings, a teacher at Ozen High School, was arrested after a video showed her slapping a student. (Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office)

I was told the kid “wasn’t even mad.” That he was smiling right after the uncontrollable, enraged, and violent teacher, Mary Hastings, physically attacked him – all the while being called “an idiot ass” and mocked afterward. Yeah. Why would he be mad, right? I would confidently argue that his reaction did not mean that he wasn’t even mad. More than likely, it meant that he was embarrassed and in order to mask his true emotions, he smiled. Those type of responses happen, tu sabes?

I was told that she must have been provoked to assault her student with the fiery aggression that she wantonly displayed. Provoked? Hey, don’t kill the messenger. Provoked was the excuse they told me. They doubled down on that ignoble position for good measure. I was asked if I’d been in public schools lately and if I hadn’t, that I’d have no idea. That I wouldn’t understand. Admittedly, I’ve been wrong once or twice in my life. Well…once.

But they were right. I don’t understand.

In a world where those in powerful positions already devalue the lives of Black men, women, and children as chronicled through violent behaviors toward them, one more young Black man had to deal with yet another white figurehead displaying what they thought of him. Yet again through violence – as if violence against young Blacks outside of the schoolhouse was not enough.

But I have no idea.

Following the same paths of incomplete and uncouth academic methods such as falsified history teachings (which I find amusing, considering those in a country so hell-bent on preserving its history fail miserably in teaching its history correctly), there is another subject that must be confronted which is crucial to an already broken educational system – but one that may lead to a much-needed revision. Some teachers, however, are seemingly oblivious to the history of their own failings as it relates to disparities in discipline taking place in their very classrooms. It is part of a larger problem that has often been ignored.

Disciplinary actions have long been administered disproportionately to Black students by way of administrators, teachers, and School Resource Officers (SROs) but disparities in discipline are not limited to the type of actions witnessed in the video at Ozen High School involving Hastings. Furthermore, its historical track record (as well as its almost exact mirroring of society) might leave you astounded. An incommensurate pattern of disciplining starts when Black youth begin school and progresses as they continue. The U.S. Department of Education even acknowledges this fact.

According to her research in areas of school discipline, Dr. Anne Gregory states that although “Black children represent only 19% of preschool enrollment,” they account for “47% of preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions.” By contrast, “white children represent 41% of preschool enrollment, but [only] 28% of preschool children receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions.” And gender has nothing to do with it. A similar diagram applies to female enrollment (20% preschool enrollment; 54% out-of-school suspensions). Add to this fact that Black students are 3.8 times more likely to receive one or more out-of-school suspensions than white students and one can clearly see a trend. The common denominator in this nefarious equation of partiality has its root at one prevailing and obvious source.

Listen. No one is excusing the actions of students who are a disruption and who are wrong. At the same time, we should not excuse the actions of teachers who are rogue in their conduct, either. A school will unwaveringly declare that fair and equal treatment of its students is a priority – right up there with educating and eventually graduating them. However, the harsh reality is that fair and equal treatment of students does not take place as much as they would like to think.

Phillip Goff, an author of a 2014 study that focused on the use of force against Black children due to their unfair dehumanization, said in a statement “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”

A similar study in 2017 concluded that Black girls were (and are) viewed by Americans as less innocent than their white counterparts of the same age (5-14). These discoveries lend credence to the belief that as Black children mature, punishments – oftentimes unjustly served – will be met with an acceptance usually reserved for hardened criminals.

If one is honest, one can readily admit to the reality that when it comes to this predicament, blame spans a larger area than otherwise imagined. There is blame thrown at teachers from students (and families of students) and vice-versa. One clear-cut truth is that many teachers are stressed and overworked from a demanding and monetarily unappreciated profession. Though they are praised in social settings, their pay stubs do not come close to reflecting their worth. Another certainty that we must come face-to-face with is that implicit bias can, indeed, play a part in their behaviors toward students. It may, for some, be a troublesome dialogue in which to engage but it is a conversation that must be tackled head-on, regardless.

The Ohio State University’s Kirwin Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity describes implicit bias as “the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. The implicit associations we harbor in our subconscious cause us to have feelings and attitudes about other people based on characteristics such as race, ethnicity, age, and appearance.” Furthermore, they “develop over the course of a lifetime…aided by life experiences, media and news programming.” Explicit bias, on the other hand, is a conscious attitude. Racial anxiety, stereotype, and stereotype threat are other factors that affect interactions between teachers and students; police and the public; staff and consumers.

Being the product of a variety of stereotypes presented through media about persons of color has discernible disadvantages. Teachers are not immune to the repugnancy that stereotyping carries along with it and often find themselves unconsciously forming their determinations on who should be punished by its lead.

To ignore the similarities regarding implicit bias as it relates to both the school system and bias in criminal justice would be socially irresponsible, if not downright unconcerned.

Spring Valley High School resource officer Deputy Ben Fields is seen on video in a confrontation with a female student. (NY Daily News)

We can look to these distinguishing elements when examining the disturbing records of teachers as well as the aforestated SROs who have abused more than just their power. Remember the white male SRO, Ben Fields, in South Carolina who flipped a Black female student seated at her desk? Video evidence clearly showed that she was of no threat to anyone – especially an officer. And, hypothetically, even if she was a threat, was there not another way to handle the situation? By the way, Fields wasn’t charged.

If you are unclear about how bias (both implicit and explicit) can play a part in school officials’ treatment toward Black students, look no further than the white Baltimore middle school teacher who voiced her opinion to her class in no uncertain terms. Clearly disturbed, she went into a rage calling her students “idiots,” then – as if she were amongst her kinfolk – “punk ass niggers who are going to get shot.” I am anxious to hear if the same sympathizers for Ms. Hastings have an excuse for this teacher’s words and the manner in which she conducted herself. Not that I would entertain the explanation, anyway…but I’m inquisitive, nonetheless.

I also wonder what the victim of that classroom violence actually said or asked to get the teacher riled up in that posture. Or, frankly, if the teacher knew the consequences of her actions and how they might affect that young man’s life. One thing is certain – he will remember that moment for the rest of his life. How it affects him is yet to be seen, though I will tell you that studies show there are long-term consequences stemming from the actions he experienced. The words school-to-prison pipeline come to mind.

As I reflect on this subject, my mind and heart march past a number of instances involving young Black men, women, and children being violently attacked – killed even – and the justifications that followed in the wake of their beating and oftentimes their deaths. Some will try to throw race out of the equation not realizing that doing so would impede any steps toward a solution.

So you’re right in a sense. I have no idea why violence toward a pupil such as Ms. Hasting’s victim is proceeded with an implied but I understand. I’ll never understand why Trayvon Martin’s murderer received millions from supporters in his defense. Or why a California nurse fired for saying that Stephon Clark deserved to be killed by police has raised over $20,000 on a crowdfunding site. Oh, I know why. But I’ll never understand why.

While writing this piece, I began to click the video to watch it again…but I couldn’t. There was something about watching it again that just didn’t sit right with me. I will never understand (nor do I wish to) how a person can watch a video of another young brother being disciplined in class through physical violence by a teacher, no less, and proceed to cape for the teacher – impassively laughing the moment off with “she’s cool” and “she just had a moment.”

I am quite certain there were slaves who had similar reasonings in defense of their masters. If you missed that allusion, well…

…you really have no idea.

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