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Answer Sheet: 'Black Lives Matter at School’ — A New Book on Anti-Racist Work in Education

To the Black children of the future who will one day all be taught the epic story of how Black people finally got free, and who will grow up knowing that their lives matter at school — and everywhere else. 

That’s the dedication to a new book, “Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice,” which springs from a movement that started several years ago to resist racism and imbue anti-racism in school curriculums as well as educational practices and policies.

The book — edited by educators and activists Denisha Jones and Jesse Hagopian — is a collection of essays, interviews, poems, lessons and more from educators, students and parents who have become involved with the movement. It discusses the movement’s four demands: ending zero-tolerance discipline and implementing restorative justice; hiring more Black teachers; mandating Black history and ethnic studies in K-12 curriculum; and funding counselors and not police officers in schools.

The movement — connected to but not directly linked to the Black Lives Matter movement — sponsors an annual event called Black Lives Matter at School Week in early February, with the aim of teaching students about Black identity and history, restorative justice and related issues. Thousands of people took part in schools across the country in each of the past two years, according to the organizers, and it has been supported by school boards, unions and other organizations, as well as public officials.

The book is a follow-up to the 2018 “Teaching for Black Lives,” a collection of writings that help educators humanize Black people in curriculum, teaching and policy and connect lessons to young people’s lives.

On Wednesday, Hagopian and Jones will launch the book they co-edited during an online discussion of anti-racist education with Brian Jones. You can tune in to the conversation by getting tickets here.

Hagopian, who teaches ethnic studies at Seattle’s Garfield High School, is a member of the national Black Lives Matter at School steering committee and an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine. Denisha Jones is also on the steering committee and is director of the Art of Teaching, a graduate teacher education program at Sarah Lawrence College. Brian Jones is associate director of education at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and writes about Black education history and politics.

Following are two excerpts from the book, which I have been given permission to publish. (Footnotes have been removed.)

This is an interview that Hagopian did with Nathaniel Genene, the student representative on the Minneapolis Board of Education, who helped organize a successful drive to remove police officers from the city’s public schools after the police killing of George Floyd on May 25.

On June 2, 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) board voted to terminate its contract with the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD), removing all police from their schools. The board also directed Superintendent Ed Graff to come up with a new plan for school safety by August 18, 2020, the date of the board’s next meeting.

While the uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd was the immediate catalyst to the removal of police from MPS, many youth had been working toward this goal for years. A 2018–19 survey by MPS showed that school cops had more interactions with Black students than with their peers. MPS will save $1.1 million annually by not contracting with the police department.

On June 7, 2020, Jesse Hagopian interviewed student Nathaniel Genene about the uprising in Minneapolis against police violence and the movement to remove police from the schools. Nathaniel is currently the student representative on the Minneapolis Board of Education and an officer on the citywide Youth Leadership Council for Minneapolis Public Schools.

A version of this interview was originally published in The Nation magazine.

Jesse Hagopian: Thanks for taking the time to talk to me, Nathaniel. I know with the uprising at your doorstep, you have a lot going on. I want to talk with you about the dramatic victory to remove police from the Minneapolis schools. But before we get there, let’s start with your experience as a Black student in the school system. Can you talk about how you have experienced racism at school?

Nathaniel Genene: We can start by looking at what happened even just two days after the murder of George Floyd—these are nights where I wasn’t going to bed. I couldn’t get my mind off his murder. And I had a teacher message me, the only Black man in class, “Nathaniel, if you are an IB [International Baccalaureate] diploma candidate, it is not reasonable to skip these exercises. I understand if you’re struggling, but if it’s simply because you have already passed, well…”

Instead of finding out how I was doing, he assumed I wasn’t trying. But I was hurting. And I knew a lot of students of color were hurting as well. And that was definitely really frustrating. This kind of experience, of teachers not understanding the impact of racial violence on students or taking the time to really understand me, is not new for me or for Black students across the country. I did say something back to the teacher to let him know what I was going through, and he sent an apology out to the class. But that was really frustrating.

As far as encounters with school resource officers, I’ve never personally had an encounter with the school resource officer at my school [Washburn High School]. In fact, I never even got to know his name — which shows you that he certainly wasn’t a helpful or supportive presence at our school. And I know many students who felt uncomfortable and intimidated by having him there. But especially now, I just can’t imagine a climate or culture where MPD officers would be beneficial to a school’s climate after the incidents that occurred last week, with students literally witnessing and recording a white officer putting his knee on an unarmed Black man’s neck, students getting pepper-sprayed, teargassed, and shot with rubber bullets in the streets by MPD officers.

Jesse: I’m truly inspired by the bravery of the youth in Minneapolis who took to the streets and helped lead a movement against police terror. It would have been outrageous to have to return to school and have to walk by a cop in the hall who had assaulted you. Can you tell me about how you got involved in struggles to change education, and how you came to serve as the student representative on the school board?

Nathaniel: I have always believed in student voice and in amplifying and uplifting the voices of the most unheard students. I think that is really the most valuable thing a student rep can do. I started interning at an educational nonprofit last summer. Our goal was to redesign schools so that students lead lessons—and they’re at the center of education. That made me think more deeply about how to engage students and what student voice really means. So going into the school year, I was thinking about: How do we engage students in their own education? And it’s usually very tokenizing, or it’s just about checking a box. I wanted to make sure that we did it differently this time. And I thought the easiest way to do that would be running to be the student rep on the school board. And here I am today.

Jesse: How did you come to see the video of George Floyd, and how you have been since then? How are you coping with the horror of the video? Have you been to the protests with your classmates?

Nathaniel: Tuesday morning I woke up to the video of George Floyd’s murder, like a lot of people. I had a Zoom meeting that morning, but I literally couldn’t get off Twitter. I couldn’t get off the news. I literally just kept watching it. It got to be too much, so I just left the meeting. I actually drove down to Thirty-Eighth and Chicago where George Floyd was murdered. At that time there were only twenty-five or thirty people down there.

I actually never got out of the car. I just kind of went to see the scene and pay my respects and reflect. I’ll be honest, I literally couldn’t believe it, so I had to go down there and see that corner for myself to believe it. I have also gone to a couple of the demonstrations.

But to watch the struggle explode into what it has become across the city and across the country has been inspiring. It’s been very motivating—but it’s also been quite terrifying at times. There were days and nights last week where you go on social media and there were threats of white supremacists in my neighborhood. I have gone entire nights without sleeping. So, last week was really hard, but it was the first week in a while where I actually got to see and talk to my friends in person, and it did help a lot to reflect on all of this with friends.

Jesse: I am so glad you are finding ways to stay emotionally connected with your friends.

Nathaniel: For sure. I have also gone back to Thirty-Eighth and Chicago about four times to go see the memorial. I took my family, and I even got to take my little cousin. I also went with friends. I keep going down there thinking that it’ll make me feel better, but it really hasn’t. And I don’t know if this feeling that I have right now will ever go away, but it still has been nice to go with family and friends and reconnect after being so isolated and disconnected the last couple of months.

Jesse: Let’s talk about how the youth in Minneapolis organized this effort to get police out of schools. I understand that there’s been a movement for some time to remove police from schools, that this didn’t just start after George Floyd was killed.

Nathaniel: I think it’s important to point out that this has been a generational struggle. We’ve had cops in schools since the ’60s. So this movement definitely did not start last week. And groups today, such as Young People’s Action Coalition (YPAC) and Our Turn, have been working on this issue for some time.

But watching the protests, I knew we had to make this struggle the number one priority. It was last Wednesday, one of those nights where I couldn’t go to sleep, watching friends of mine get shot and teargassed, and I was thinking: There’s no way that when we come back to school we can have those officers in our schools. This is not how we are going to want to set up our school climate.

So that’s when we really got started talking. We had some very good leadership on this at MPS, and they actually decided to have a special session and to vote on this on June 2. We had to prepare for this important vote in a matter of days. So I sat down with a student from CityWide, our student leadership board in Minneapolis, and talked about how we could gather student testimonies, about their views on police in schools, in just a week. I knew I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence just by telling students, “Go email your directors.”

We decided we needed to make a survey form about police in schools and school safety—and we actually borrowed this idea from the teachers union. We reached out to students through many advocacy groups, such as Our Turn and YPAC, and through our citywide student government. And it ended up spreading a lot quicker than I had thought it would. We ended up getting over 1,800 responses, which is crazy, because that was in a matter of about three days.

We could have gotten even more responses if we had just made an online petition that anyone could respond to, but we really wanted to know what the students had to say. We asked students questions like, “If you had the funds to make changes, and if you had the funds to make yourself feel safe and secure, what would you use that money for?” And I think those received the most meaningful responses. So we made a summary of the responses and presented that to the board. Hopefully, as we start working on how to make sure that students feel safe next year, we can use those responses to help craft a plan.

Jesse: Actually asking students what they would need to feel safe and then funding it—that seems so straightforward, but it so rarely happens. Can you tell me about what happened during the vote to remove police from the Minneapolis Public Schools?

Nathaniel: On June 2, we held a virtual meeting because we’re actually not allowed to meet in person yet. But there was a huge protest at the Davis Center, which is our headquarters at MPS. Our teachers union organized the rally, and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar was there. She spoke at the rally, and many students did too. In the end, the vote to remove all police from Minneapolis Public Schools went nine to zero. I think the vote going unanimous really sent a clear message to the MPD and to institutions across the country.

Jesse: As I’m sure you have seen in the days right after your vote, Portland also voted to remove police, and Denver is now considering it. I am working with youth and other educators to remove the police from schools here in Seattle. There are also several important national organizations that have been working hard to remove police from schools, such as the Advancement Project, Dignity in Schools, and Black Lives Matter at School.

Nathaniel: Yes, and there was a student group, Students Deserve, that reached out to me from Los Angeles.

Jesse: I want to end with the vision of the students in the survey. What did they say about how police-free schools could make them safer, and what kind of alternative programs could be put in place to support students’ overall well-being? What would it mean to make Black lives matter in school?

Nathaniel: Students came up with many important alternatives to police in schools, like increasing access to mental health services for Black, Indigenous, and other students of color; promoting restorative justice practices; hiring more social workers, counselors, and teachers of color; increasing the salaries of adults who already mitigate conflict, and security provided through community outlets.

In terms of making Black lives matter at school, I believe we need to hire more teachers of color. And we must make sure that we have a curriculum that reflects our students, especially our Black and Brown students. This uprising is showing us that we can make those changes— and so many more. We have to make these changes because our lives are at stake all around the country. If you think that the MPD just happens to be one bad apple, you’re not that much different than the people who think that those four cops who murdered George Floyd were four bad apples. It’s not just a Minnesota problem. It’s a nationwide, systemic problem that people have been fighting against for years.

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned in the last couple of weeks, it’s that there are a lot of really good people who continue to hold up some really bad institutions and policies. And I think it’s finally time for that to change.

This is the chapter titled “Black Lives Matter at School: Historical Perspectives” by Brian Jones.

By Brian Jones

The Black Lives Matter at School movement is a new phase of a long struggle to transform the conditions of teaching and learning for Black students in this country. Black parents, teachers, and students have not just been the object of historic educational battles (either wrongfully denied opportunities or grateful recipients of them) but have been leading the fight. By entering this struggle, you are joining a stream of historic activism and advocacy, led by Black people, for justice in schooling. All the moralizing about whether Black people “value” education falls apart in the face of their unwavering, hundreds-years-long effort to get it. No other people in this land have fought so hard for so long for access to and justice in schooling.

Each of the week of action’s four demands (end zero tolerance, mandate Black history and ethnic studies, hire more Black teachers, and fund counselors, not cops) has echoes, precedents, and activist ancestors to call upon. While the heroes and sheroes of this long struggle are mostly unknown to history, some, like Carter G. Woodson and Mary McLeod Bethune, are better remembered. The struggles of other groups, including Indigenous people, people from Latin America, and people from Asia, are related to and connected to the history of Black people’s struggles for education, but they are not the focus of this chapter. What follows is an attempt to provide a quick overview of a story that could easily fill books, bookshelves, and libraries. Its purpose is to give you a sense of how the present movement fits into past patterns and inspire you to read on, to keep pushing and learning more.

Mandate Black history and ethnic studies 

In the late twentieth century, Black college students rose up all over the United States, demanding the formation of Black studies and ethnic studies departments on their campuses. From historically Black colleges like Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to Ivy League institutions like Brown University, students in the 1960s and ’70s protested, sat in, occupied buildings, and more, with a wide range of demands that almost always included the teaching of Black history and the mandating of Black studies in some form. When a majority of the students at San Francisco State College went on strike in 1968, they won the formation of the nation’s first Black studies department as part of a new School of Ethnic Studies.

Public schools were a major battleground in the US civil rights movement, but Black parents and activists often had to create their own schools from scratch. Some, like Septima Clark’s Citizenship Schools, were created by the movement, for the movement. In hundreds of Citizenship Schools spread across the US South, students of all ages could acquire the rudiments of literacy, increase their knowledge of political processes, and gain exposure to highlights from Black history.

Another type of self-organized Black schools were the Freedom Schools, created by civil rights activists to supplement inadequately funded and often degrading schooling provided by the state, and to raise political consciousness. The first Freedom School was organized in Mississippi in the summer of 1964, and the idea spread nationwide (and continues today).

Building on the energy of the movements of the 1960s, Black parents, educators, and activists developed regional and national networks of independent Black schools in the 1970s that put Black studies at the core of their mission. Foremost among these was the popular and successful independent school created in Oakland by the Black Panther Party, where reclaiming Black history also meant learning African history. “We knew the map of Africa,” one former student recalled, “just as well as we knew the United States.”

But many decades before these uprisings, Black educators and activists collected and curated books and other materials related to Black history and disseminated Black history curricula to schoolteachers nationwide. In Harlem, Black working-class intellectuals like Arturo Schomburg and Hubert Harrison built impressive personal Black history libraries and lectured widely in the 1920s and ’30s. Black scholar and educator Carter G. Woodson started the Association for the Study of African American Life and History in Chicago in 1915 and launched a Negro History Week initiative in 1926.

Like the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, Negro History Week was a do-it-yourself, grassroots effort. Woodson produced the Negro History Bulletin, a periodical that aimed to provide accessible stories and ideas about Black history for teachers to use in their classrooms. As an annual event in February, Negro History Week spread to a few cities in its first years but did not become codified as Black History Month until the 1970s. One bulletin in 1938 emphasized that the point of studying Black history is not to elevate Black people above any other people but to serve as a corrective to racist history. “The fact is…that one race has not accomplished any more good than any other race,” an article titled “History Is Truth” explained, “for it would be contrary to the laws of nature to have one race inferior to the other. But if you leave it to the one to set forth his special virtues while disparaging those of others, it will not require many generations before all credit for human achievements will be ascribed to one particular stock. Such is the history taught the youth today.”

The Negro History Bulletin was just one part of the broader landscape of efforts by social justice–minded Black (mostly female) educators nationwide to raise Black pride and consciousness inside of the classroom and beyond. Negro History Week was an occasion for self-organized community marches, Black history lectures, musical concerts, and singing the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

We can trace the impulse to demand instruction in Black history even earlier. In the late nineteenth century, after the abolition of slavery, Black people seized every opportunity to acquire literacy and to create for themselves and their children a new narrative about their place in the nation and the world.10 Black people were so determined that they actually became more literate than white people in the US South during this period. Young and old alike grabbed any spelling book they could get hold of and learned side by side. While some of these booklets produced by white missionary societies were condescending in tone, literate free Black people in northern states also produced materials to send south.

These resources narrated Black history as a story of heroic rebellion, from Toussaint L’Ouverture (leader of the Haitian Revolution) to Nat Turner (leader of a revolt in Virginia in 1831). One such journal, the Freedman’s Torchlight, was the first curriculum published by Black people for Black students. It aimed to teach the alphabet, phonemes, and rudiments of grammar and literacy, along with passages for the newly literate to read aloud. The first issue from 1866 promised that “[h]istory will tell you about the different nations, and great cities that ever have been. It will tell you who first came to this country, and all about the Colored people and every people. It is delightful to read history. As soon as you can read all in this little paper, called The Torchlight, you will be able to read history.”

End zero tolerance and fund counselors, not cops

Sending their children to school for the first time in the aftermath of abolition, some of the freed people and, to their credit, some of their new teachers were opposed to corporal punishment for students because it was too reminiscent of the violence of slavery. There doesn’t seem to be evidence of widespread corporal punishment in the late nineteenth-century schools that Black students attended or widespread opposition to it where it took place. The demand to stop over-punishing Black students may date back to the Great Migration in the early twentieth century, when millions of Black people fled Jim Crow terrorism in the South and relocated in northern and western states during the twentieth century. Fleeing rural terrorism and poverty for new political and economic opportunities, they found themselves in an urban landscape defined by racism and segregation. Northern white teachers and administrators almost universally viewed Black students as inherently (or, at best, culturally) inferior.16 Some organizations of radical white teachers were important exceptions to this pattern. In 1936, a fourteen-year-old Black student, Robert Shelton, was involved in a disturbance in the hallway of his sister’s Harlem elementary school, PS5. He was brought to Gustav Schoenchen, the white principal, who beat him. Two doctors determined that Shelton had contusions on his arms, traumatic injuries to the muscles in his ribs, and injuries on his scalp.

Black parents immediately organized to demand Schoenchen’s removal as principal. Their organization, the Committee for Better Schools in Harlem, received assistance from educator and activist Ella Baker, as well as from an organized group of mostly white teachers. New York City’s teachers during this period had two competing trade unions: the Teachers Guild and the Teachers Union. The Teachers Union was led by members of the Communist Party, and so they were deeply committed to antiracism. They challenged racism in the city’s curriculum and fought for the inclusion of Black history lessons, protested segregation and overcrowding in schools that served mostly Black and Brown students, and joined the Harlem parents on picket lines to demand Schoenchen’s removal from PS 5. Unfortunately, the Teachers Union was red-baited out of existence during the McCarthy anti-communist purges, when many radical teachers were fired.18 The Teachers Guild, which supported these purges, went on to organize all of New York City’s teachers and is known today as the United Federation of Teachers. Tragically, the UFT, like most teachers unions in cities with large populations of Black and Brown students, has a history of supporting provisions that strengthen the ability of teachers to remove “disruptive” children from the classroom.

The term “zero tolerance” comes from the US Customs Service’s anti drug program in the 1980s, but police began patrolling the hallways of schools for Black and Latinx students as early as the 1940s. Over the next several decades, municipal leaders in urban school districts increasingly turned to police to control young Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). As they moved through their school day, by 1972 such students in at least forty states did so under the watch of police.

The presence of uniformed police officers in public schools emerged as a national policy priority in the 1990s after a wave of suburban school shootings. Ironically, although these shootings most often involved white students, it was predominantly schools serving Black and Brown students that saw police departments move in and take over the functions of school safety agents. In 1998, the New York City Police Department took over school safety in the city’s public education system (the nation’s largest), starting with 1,500 officers.

By 2008, the number had jumped to more than 5,000. Meanwhile New York City’s 1.1 million public school students only had 3,000 guidance counselors. Police in schools quickly became normalized in many large urban school districts, but student activists have been at the forefront of calling this priority into question.

Hire more Black teachers

In the twenty-first century, the demand to hire more Black teachers has emerged from two historic waves of mass firing of Black teachers. The first large-scale attack on Black teachers occurred after the famous Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision. Ironically, this great victory for Black educators and activists was experienced as a calamity for many Black communities. Black teachers and administrators prepared for desegregation by drawing up plans for the best way to approach the transition. All over the United States, Black educators worked out careful plans to have some Black administrators and teachers change schools along with Black students, so that the educators could help their white colleagues get to know the new students. Tragically, white politicians and school leaders did not think that desegregation should mean shared power with Black educators or parents. Rather, they drew up desegregation plans that almost always required Black students to travel to attend previously all-white schools, and never the reverse. White administrators were reluctant to hire Black teachers, and so one of the perverse results of the Brown decision was mass closure of previously all-Black schools and mass unemployment for Black educators. Between 1954 and 1965, approximately 50 percent of black teachers and 90 percent of Black principals lost their jobs. Speaking to the all-Black Georgia Teachers and Education Association in 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Integration doesn’t mean the liquidation of everything started and developed by Negroes.” Rather, he continued, real integration meant shared power. “And I am not one that will integrate myself out of power.”

The second wave of destroying Black teaching jobs has taken place as a result of the recent neoliberal push for the privatization of public schools. Once again, apparent victories for Black parents and students—in this case the bipartisan consensus in support of charter schools, Common Core standards, and Common Core–aligned standardized testing, as well as the weakening of teacher unions—amounted to a loss for Black teachers. The double irony is that unions have been a principal lever of social mobility for Black people, and the test-and-punish regime that has come to dominate the contemporary approach to public education has primarily targeted schools where Black teachers work, leading to school closures and the pushing of large numbers of Black teachers out of the profession.

Black teachers are only about 7 percent of the nation’s teaching force but tend to be concentrated in areas with large populations of Black students. In New York City, for example, 20 percent of public school teachers are Black. Chicago and New Orleans are two of the most extreme examples; from 1995 onward, the percentage of Black teachers in Chicago has dropped from 45 percent to 25 percent.

Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, 73 percent of its teachers were Black. After the storm, which city leaders used as an excuse to close public schools and bring in charter schools staffed with Teach for America members, only 49 percent of the teachers were Black.

What both historic waves of attacks on Black teachers have in common is the attempt to carry out programs of racial justice for people, instead of with them. Black teachers, parents, and administrators greeted the Brown decision with a mixture of enthusiasm and dread. But in many cities around the country, Black educators drew up plans for the integration of schools. These plans were ignored.

Likewise, the opening of gleaming new hedge fund–backed charter school facilities in places like Harlem was greeted with an initial wave of enthusiasm. But there, too, it eventually became clear to parents and students that grinding through successive waves of brand-new teachers semester after semester provided no miracles, and many students moved from charter schools back to public schools, where they could find a stable community of educators (and a higher percentage of Black educators) to care for and instruct them.

In four hundred years on this land, Black people have waged an uninterrupted battle for education. The equally persistent and ongoing resistance to their demands for reform should give us all pause. To get some small measure of access, they have had to draw up petitions and make demands of existing institutions. At the same time, they have developed and built their own resources and institutions, creating their own curricular materials and even their own schools.

The Black Lives Matter at School movement shares these aims. It calls upon you, the reader of this chapter, to join in demanding more from our schools and applying pressure to school and political officials. But it is a grassroots initiative created, conceived, and coordinated by parents, teachers, and students nationwide—not by officials. Not unlike the early development of Negro History Week, the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action is, at heart, a DIY movement, inviting you to take action now, teach Black history now, affirm Black students now, regardless of whether the demands are met. The Black Lives Matter movement (initiated by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Opal Tometi in 2013 after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin in Florida) has sparked a wide range of initiatives and organizations. Because schools are so central to modern life—as community centers, as workplaces, and as crucial sites of making and remaking ideas—it is not surprising that the Black Lives Matter movement has found a durable form of organization in the form of the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. Our public schools touch nearly every person in one way or another, and as the week of action spreads from school to school, we are putting down roots for one of the most important new social movements of our time.

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Valerie Strauss

Valerie Strauss is the Washington Post education writer.