I read an article recently that reminded me of stories I read when I was a child; harrowing tales from Dickens’ Oliver Twist. It also reminded me of the shocking contempt and abuse suffered by students forcibly placed in “Indian schools“, and in other places that “educated” students whose voices are muted.
Reading the article was infuriating. But, something else alarmed me too. I recognized this company. It was Camelot.
Not too long ago, Shoemaker (and other high schools in our network) had a contract with this company. Schools often contract with alternative schools to access additional support for some students for varying reasons.
I read the article with disbelief. “…a behavioral specialist, walked into a classroom with several loud and boisterous students and commanded them to “shut the fuck up,” decreeing that the next one who talked would get body slammed through the door, according to a subsequent criminal complaint. Moments later, Seals fulfilled his promise. After 17-year-old Corey Mack asked and received permission from his teacher, Teresa Bivens, to get up to sharpen his pencil, Seals pushed him repeatedly against a door and then shoved him into the hall, where a school surveillance camera recorded most of the rest of the incident. Seals, 6 feet 4 inches tall and 280 pounds, lifted Mack, 5 feet 8 inches tall and about 160 pounds, by his shirt and swung him into the wall headfirst, later pinning him to the ground as other staff members arrived, according to court documents.”
Alternative Placements should operate like therapeutic schools, not jails
In some of the cases, like in the account above, staff at Camelot who were accused of assaulting students were terminated. The article said that in other instances, families complained that their allegations were ignored.
Parents interviewed in the article voiced frustrations that sounded similar to families of children who experienced police brutality. All schools, including those supporting students involved with violence, must make good on a solemn promise to families about the safety of their children.
There are times that call for students to be placed in other settings. There may be a need to support the community in a way that calls for alternative placements for certain students. This should be in rare circumstances and safety and respect should be the foundation of any school, including alternative schools. If a student who may be prone to violence is supposed to be provided with therapeutic support and is, instead subjected to abuse, physically and emotionally, how does this help the student’s behavior? How is it humane? How is it a school?
Taking a stand against abuse in a school is easy. But, this article also made me think of how many people I know, Black people in particular, wistfully recount how they had been beaten, pummeled, whipped, etc. by family members who intended to not spare the rod. Often, these stories are shared with a pride about how a family member “didn’t play”. I have often sat slack-jawed listening to tales of how friends detailed their countless beatings with everything one can imagine. Often, at the end of the nostalgia, I am told that this is what more kids need these days. Our kids need the exact opposite.
For a brief time, I worked at the central police station (hard to believe, I know). I was a bail interviewer and I used a formula sheet to determine what the bail recommendations should be for the accused. I was interested to see if beatings limited the number of arrests someone would experience. Over 90% of the people I asked in my informal survey said they were beaten when they were young. A lot of beatings. They often smiled while sharing these experiences. I found it fascinating and shocking.
Years ago, I was asked to interview a principal from the south for a principalship here in Philly. People were extremely excited about this candidate and I could see why. He appeared to live and breathe instructional and managerial leadership. I almost swooned at the thought of collaborating, introducing him to my social justice-minded colleagues, and working collectively to heavily influence educational justice in Philly. We met in a restaurant and I proceeded to question him about his experience, his aspiration for students, and how he would navigate being in a new city, with similar and different challenges. Everything was amazing and I was beyond impressed. My hopes came crashing down when we spoke about the students who were the most challenging.
This talented candidate spoke of relying on paddling students. I was aghast as I had no idea this was still a practice in schools. He shared that often, he would offer poor working class parents, all of them Black, the choice of a one day suspension or a paddle. He said the parents overwhelmingly asked for their child to be paddled. I asked him who did the paddling. He said, with pride, “I do. It is my school. I am the leader.” Needless to say, I recommended he not be hired and he wasn’t.
Later I would come to understand that corporal punishment in schools is legal in 19 states. But, you don’t need to think hard about who likely is overwhelmingly subjected to this type of punishment. The same students who are most likely to be pushed out of schools through expulsions and suspensions or the violence of not being educated. On top of that, Black boys are most likely to be beaten in school
Dr. Stacey Patton, author of a forthcoming book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America. An excerpt of her book was adapted for an essay published in the NY Times.
“We have to stop hurting our children… it erodes our children’s humanity and co-signs the slave master’s logic that you have to hit a black body to make it comply.
We need to stop teaching children that obedience is their greatest virtue. Especially as we brace for the possibility of more systemic racial devastation, we need young people who push boundaries and become the kinds of adults who will not let themselves be victimized.”
We are trying to remove police from schools, but we will fall short if the brutality that our youth face from police is only substituted by “educators” in schools.
Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.