EXT. BRENTWOOD SCIENCE MAGNET ELEMENTARY PLAYGROUND – DAY
A small group of 6 and 7 year old boys, mostly African American and Latino, are hanging out by a steel Space Dome Climber. One of these boys is XAVIER, slightly bigger than the others, with an athletic build. He’s bored.
XAVIER (to no one in particular)
Hey, guys. Let’s fight!
The above scene is based on actual events with our son playing the part of “Xavier.” No one was hurt and there was no blood shed. No one started crying even. For his participation in said event, J received an official citation from the school for “inciting a brawl.”
There is no formal explanation for citations in the LAUSD handbook; in fact, the most recent edition only mentions a citation once. But I did find one definition on a California school’s website: “citations are a formal documentation of behaviors. Teachers should use citations sparingly and strategically. Citations may ONLY be written by teachers or the principal, not classified staff or substitutes.” In some schools, particularly in higher grades, police officers administer citations. Essentially, they are part of a school’s discipline plan.
And what about a “brawl”? Let’s refer to an official source, Black’s Law Dictionary:
A clamorous or tumultuous quarrel in a public place, to the disturbance of the public peace. In English law, specifically, a noisy quarrel or other uproarious conduct creating a disturbance in a church or churchyard. 4 Bl. Comm. 140; 4 Steph. Comm. 253. The popular meanings of the words “brawls” and “tumults” are substantially the same and identical.
This is a brawl; this is a brawl; and this most definitely is a brawl. A group of seven year olds going at it on the playground? At the most, that’s a kerfuffle, but for the average person, that’s just called recess.
Unfortunately, as many studies and reports have shown, black and Latino youths don’t often have the luxury of exhibiting “average” or ordinary behavior in school. Rather, they tend to be over-policed by teachers and administrators and often treated like violent offenders for routine situations.
Rather than sign the citation, as we were directed, my husband and I went to the school the next day and confronted the vice principal, a very nice, mild mannered African American man. He was stunned by our outrage, admitted that his word choice was poor, but assured us that he was just trying to scare our son.
In February 1993, when he was 17 years old, Virginia native Allen Iverson went bowling with a group of (black) friends at a bowling alley. Allegedly, someone called Iverson a “nigger” and “little boy,” and a fight broke out between two distinct groups, one all black and the other all white. According to one source, “Police concluded that the white combatants had acted in self-defense, and none was charged. But Iverson and three other black teens were charged as adults with ‘maiming by mob‘—a felony under a rarely used statute written to prosecute Klan lynchings.” Ultimately, Iverson was sentenced to 15 years in prison for participating in what is commonly referred to as a brawl. The prosecuting attorney argued: “This was a violent mob. We tried them as a mob because, while we couldn’t link specific people to specific acts, each defendant was responsible for what occurred.” Iverson served four months in a Virginia correctional facility before being granted clemency by Governor Douglas Wilder.
Harsh punishments for black youth often are regarded as necessary tactics to scare them straight or to prevent them from going down a criminal path. As journalist Stacey Patton argues, such notions are based on the belief that these young people are inherently offenders.
Seen as criminals from childhood, little boys and girls with black skin have the unfortunate damnation of existing in a society that sees no purpose in them. Black people and blackness are regularly associated with unruliness, violence and trouble. A rowdy black kid can’t just be doing something silly. It’s often seen as displaying a blatant disregard for authority and social order — pretty much asking to be kept in check by any means necessary.
The important work of UCLA professor and student advocate Tyrone Howard reminds us how schools contribute to building this narrative of criminalization. Black male students are disproportionally the victims of school zero-tolerance policies and other forms of punishment where they are made an example. Howard maintains: “minor infractions, which could and should be handled by school officials, began to result in the involvement of local police, the arrest of minors, and the filing of criminal charges.” For many of these youths, the lines between school and the law are blurred. A 2014 report from the Department of Education describes school citations (as well as student arrests and ticketing) as “law enforcement techniques,” and argues that they should be used only as a last resort.
“Iverson and his buddies went to the alley to bowl, not to brawl. Somebody hit somebody and then it turned into a fight. There is no common purpose when people come running from everywhere because of the words, fight, fight, fight.”
~Herbert V. Kelly, Sr., defense attorney for Allen Iverson
My husband and I recognized the slippery slope that we were on. We understood that labeling a first grader as a “brawler” is the first step down a long road of further unwarranted charges, mis-applied legal terms and undue punishments. While we had some control, we wanted to reject this narrative for our son. We repudiated the citation and told the vice principal that he better not put it in the boy’s school file. Case closed . . . for that day.
Sadly, this story is not a unique one. Tunette Powell recently wrote a piece in The Washington Post about the number of times her four year old son has been suspended from pre-school. Indeed, the “preschool to prison pipeline” is real and is not limited to poor, inner city youth. Any black student may be subjected to the biases of a teacher, including one who may think he is doing the right thing. [Note: that administrator who wrote J’s citation? Now Executive Director of LAUSD Student Integration Services.]
If other parents have gone through something similar with their children, I encourage you to post in the comments section below!