Op-Ed: NC faces unprecedented threats to public education. It’s time to protect our students
Today, in some North Carolina counties, the Proud Boys and their allies are actively attacking the institution of public education. Conservatives in our General Assembly call for a ban on honest books about our country’s complex racial history. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Governor Robinson is looking for ways to punish teachers for their cultural sensitivity. Clearly, now is the time for us to take a stand to protect our most vulnerable students. I remember times when I was a student at Durham Public Schools where I wished the teachers were better able to support me and my peers.
In 1998, I walked into my eighth grade science lab with the rest of my classmates. For the most part, it was business as usual. For me, it was a step in a day where I expected to provide a sense of normalcy in the face of the tumultuous events of the previous night. We sat down in our seats and prepared for the day’s labs, the smell of burning permeating the room left by the class ahead of us. Our energetic, sincere, white sophomore teacher addressed me just as I was sitting on the bar stool. She held up the newspaper and said, “Millicent, is that your father in today’s paper?”
The tears that formed in my eyes that day twenty-four years ago are bubbling to the surface as I write this.
I hadn’t even told my friends about it (my boyfriend at the time knew because his dad was one of the responding officers), but the news of my dad killing a man in self-defense with us was not yet known to the public. When the teacher abruptly confronted me in a public and humiliating manner, I did not respond well. I was a 14 year old girl who was embarrassed that her beloved father was arrested. I still did not fully understand the circumstances of the events of the previous night and behaved badly. I threw the stool I had just sat on across the room.
Reflecting on this experience, I feel intensely that no child should have to go through such a traumatic event. It’s tempting to think that the teacher’s removal would ‘solve’ the problem and ensure that no other child ever falls victim to such hurtful and callous words or such public shaming. But even if an administrator had walked into the room, escorted that teacher, and made sure she never came back, I would have gone back again and again to a school that was not equipped to provide a response that took into account trauma to me and other students.
There is no doubt that some poor DPS teachers are unwilling to do the work necessary to make the school a safe place for all students, even though most DPS educators are deeply committed to equity and trauma-informed approaches. Of course, I fully support Durham Public Schools in using the Code of Conduct and other measures to hold them accountable and, if necessary, remove them from office. But to claim that removing a few bad apples will “fix” our public schools for black and brown kids is shortsighted. It ignores years of state and county underfunding; a shortage of nurses, school counselors and social workers; and neighborhood schools with unequal resources.
Here’s what I wish had happened that horrible day: I wish the teacher had been well trained and educated about creating a trauma-informed classroom. I wish she had spoken to me privately, expressing her grief and asking me how she could help me. When she observed signs of distress, I wish she had sent me to see a counselor – with room in her schedule – to really process my grief and shock. I wish I had been shown support, kindness, and acceptance, not just that day, but for the rest of the school year.
For these things to happen, we need to invest in our educators, as well as our students. We must give them the chance to have the energy and the resources – cultural, psychological and otherwise – to take good care of their students and themselves.
If elected to the Board of Education, I will work tirelessly with my fellow board members and county commissioners to create a caring and sustainable system that teaches and supports educators so they can respond to all students with respect. I will fight to ensure that all schools have enough support staff so that students can get the guidance and support they need. I will be a voice for students and families experiencing unimaginable hardship.
It’s easy to think we can bring about change by removing a few racist educators, when we really need to do more to break down systemic barriers. We can and must do better for our students, and knocking down a few bricks from the wall of white supremacy is not enough. We must completely dismantle the systems of oppression preventing our black and brown students from achieving the peace and prosperity they deserve.
The author is a candidate for the Durham Board of Education, Consolidated District B.
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