In 2006, I graduated from Hazelwood Central High School in St. Louis County. Up until I turned 16, and later sometimes to save on gas money, I remember taking the bus everyday from the neighborhood I grew up in called Dellwood.
For the first time in my life, I interacted with other students on a daily basis who didn’t look like me. It was very eye-opening, learning about different cultures and people of different backgrounds. I had resources that I never knew existed. Things like Japanese courses, a state-level concert band, and the League of Elders, a group of young influential men striving to make a difference in the lives of others.
But there often seemed to be this cultural dissonance at times. On the bus, and sometimes at school, I would see fights happen. Some fights happened over a simple misunderstanding, others over jokes, bullying or being mistreated. We often had our quarrels, some more serious than others, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t long before many of us would become friends again. Leaving the past behind.
Things were different then. There was room for forgiveness, room for mistakes. Sure, sometimes our bus drivers and teachers dealt with difficult times. But there were many lessons to be learned, and it helped shape me into the person I am today, a first-generation college graduate with a graduate degree. These degrees helped me discover my passion in the areas of communications and digital storytelling, skills that I’m blessed to use on a daily basis.
It’s Different Now
Wednesday I learned news of a new statute being implemented in the state of Missouri. The statute reads:
565.054. 1. A person commits the offense of assault in the third degree if he or she knowingly causes physical injury to another person.
2. The offense of assault in the third degree is a class E felony, unless the victim of such assault is a special victim, as the term “special victim” is defined under section 565.002, in which case it is a class D felony.
It was disheartening reading it from the website of the school district my mom, aunt and uncle all attended. It was disheartening, mostly because I relived some of my experiences, wondering where I might be today had this been in place when I was a kid.
A simple misunderstanding over a pencil sharpener in fifth grade could’ve landed me with a felony. What if I had never made it college? Or, 20 years later being unable to rent an apartment, or vote, because of one little mistake?
If two students are fighting and one child is injured, the student who caused the injury may be charged with a felony.
I thought about the school-to-prison pipeline and how this specifically affected Black students in St. Louis and Kansas City. These are the same students who were often misunderstood during the Ferguson protests. The same students who aren’t given the appropriate resources, guidance and support they need. The same students who wake up everyday, not seeing many teachers who look like them, and are often misdiagnosed or overcharged based on their actions.
I thought about my peers in Dellwood who often waited at the bus stop 30-40 minutes earlier than some students because of their further distance from attending Hazelwood Central High School. “If two students are fighting and one child is injured” became embedded in my head. I saw privilege, as I realized that too often many of my peers in surrounding school districts were and may never receive the proper resources they need to be successful in the first place. When you factor that into coming to school hungry, growing up in tough environments and figuring out how to survive on a daily basis, mistakes happen.
I wondered, what are we teaching our kids? That one simple mistake could ruin their lives, forever? Further dividing the inequality gap between Whites and Blacks.
Instilling fear into our students won’t yield better results. In fact, it may only isolate the students who need the most attention and support. But it’s this statistic that is probably the most alarming one of all. “Missouri is noted for suspending over 14 percent of Black elementary school students and having the widest Black-White discipline gap with 12.5 more Black elementary students than white students being suspended every year per 100 students.”
I realize that in many ways, the school system was never built for me. I realize that privilege means sitting comfortably amongst an abundance of resources, usually with a lack of cultural understanding and awareness. But here’s something we’ve all got to realize.
If you’re going to make students a felon for one single fight, what are you doing to the schools that stopped fighting for them in the first place?