This August a former student of mine will go on trial for capital murder in Texas. I have no reason to suspect anything other than that he will receive the maximum sentence in the end, which is death. The thought that hung over my head wasn’t “how did we not see it coming?” but something worse. Of course, I greedily needed to exorcise myself of this demon, even (pre-pandemic) imagining that I might travel to Houston and talk to him. Find out, not what was going through his head, but what the fuck we could have done to help, and why we didn’t. As hundreds of years of anger continues to burn through the country, and the uselessness and dangerousness of the police and what they actually serve and protect continues into weeks, I am also trying to imagine what this would look like in a world without police and the systems they manage. If the front lines of mental illness and homelessness were based firmly in care and not the devaluing and control of “nonessential” populations, we wouldn’t need so many cops and cop-systems.
We can start with schools. While it is important to get cops out of schools, it should be kept in mind that often the cop is the school itself. My student was a product of the Arizona Charter School system, with its nepotism, corruption, and hyperactive profit drive. As a matter of fact, he attended the same charter school the majority of his life. The school was designed by its principal (and owner) to be a place where first generation immigrants could send their children and the school would help them assimilate into U.S. culture. It was a safe space (in the sense that they would not work with ICE), but uniforms were required and the rules were strict.
The principal/owner and her family filled the ranks of the school from assistant principal down to history teacher and their pedagogy involved screaming at kids, from kindergarten up through high school, and shaming them in front of staff and peers. For this, they skimmed money from whatever funds they could, and lived pretty high on the hog. Students could be disciplined into being good citizens, which is the perfect ideology when the point is putting asses in seats for your per-pupil funding, but terrible for just about every other aspect of a child’s life. Needless to say, social and emotional learning, counselling, and care for the mental health of these young people was not on the table, it was “too expensive”.
I knew this particular student for two years, and was aware that he had a troubled past and struggled with mental illness. In the two years I knew him, he had been kicked out of his home and lived unhoused for the most part, staying with friends when he could. School staff trucked in rumors of childhood abuse, and that the student himself had been complicit in abuse as a young teenager. As a junior, he stole a bunch of Chrome Books from my classroom, and I tried to take the lion’s share of blame for that so he could stay, though I often wonder now if things would have been that different. His senior year was especially rough, and I often would come to campus early and he would already be outside, sleeping with his head down on a picnic table. I invited him in and let him sleep in my classroom until the school day started, asked him if he was OK, if he had a place to stay, if he was hungry. He always said he was fine. I’m sure he saw me as part of the problem, and I don’t blame him for not letting me in.
Every part of every system, every safety-net, had failed him, and he in turn had failed others and himself. My very presence as a teacher at that school made me part of a failed system. The best I could do was let him know I would listen and help him with his work if he wanted or needed it. We pushed through his work in English, sometimes together and sometimes on his own, and he managed to recover any credit he lost through previous F’s and crossed the graduation stage in May of 2018. I was misty-eyed and proud of all of the kids, but it brought real tears to my eyes when he crossed the stage, crying himself. I can only speculate on why; perhaps he was glad to be out of there, free from the school at last, perhaps he was proud of himself, or some combination, or something else entirely. After the ceremony, we found each other and I gave him a hug, saying I was proud. He said something to the effect that he was glad to have me as a teacher, and we parted ways. That was the last time I saw him.
One morning, as we were leaving to head to class from morning assembly, a week or so before the class of 2019 graduation, a student came up to me as I was passing through the office.
“Mister, have you seen this?” He handed me his phone. On it was a picture of my former student, on the website of a news agency, with a grisly headline. I was stunned. It was like the gut-punch you feel when someone you care about is badly injured or killed.
“Are you—is this real? Are you okay? Do you want to talk about it?” was all that I could muster.
“Naw mister, it’s okay. It’s totally crazy right? I gotta get to class.”
“Okay, see you in class,” I said as he walked off.
I had a prep period first hour, so my plan was to head back to my classroom and see if I could find anything else online, then take some time to collect myself before I had to teach. Instead, I bumped into the assistant principal outside the office. I asked if he had heard, and he said he hadn’t. I opened the same article that my student showed me this morning.
“You know what,” he said, after perusing the article for about half a minute, “that kid’s a piece of shit.” He went on to explain that the school had tried and tried to help him, and that he deserved what he got. He went on to say that he was largely opposed to the death penalty, but this kid should fry. He was a waste, and that those who could not be rehabilitated, should be put to death so they couldn’t suck society’s scant resources.
I was dumbfounded. The assistant principal abruptly walked away, leaving me seething. I went back to my classroom, opened my computer, and immediately started looking for an open English teaching position somewhere else. I had already signed my contract, but I was relishing the look on my boss’ face when I told him where he could stick it. For three years I convinced myself that my school was an example of a “good charter,” one that took care of kids and families without papers, without judgement, despite the fact that injustice after injustice, some bigger and some smaller, were done to students who didn’t fall in line and assimilate, who wouldn’t be quiet and line up where and when some adult screamed at them to do so, who bounced a basketball one too many times in the breezeway, who brought conchas or other sweets from the grocery store across the street.
The school saw discipline as the way too keep kids out of the system, but it really prepped them for how they would be treated by the system as adults. It mimicked the way I routinely saw prisoners treated when I facilitated classes at the women’s prison out west of the city. The school was the cop, the one with the wide-brimmed trooper hat like on some shitty scared-straight program on TV. Assimilation was coerced through force, anything short of physical violence, so these undocumented Brown kids could get a taste of what would await them as adults in the U.S. If you were considered irredeemable, you were a piece of shit.
Cops should be removed from schools in perpetuity, but I think it’s important to see how the schools themselves are doing cop work. Instead of providing healing and safety for the kids who need it the most, they double down on assimilation and coercion. It’s rampant in charter schools, but the contradictions are tearing public schools apart just the same. You can’t have school resource officers and functioning restorative justice programs. As one of my students eloquently put it in a project this year: you can’t build Restorative Justice on the foundations of Zero Tolerance. Schools have their knees on the necks of Black and Brown students in the name of “safety,” while offering them the crumbs of restorative practices.
The vast majority of teachers stand around and watch it happen, we are complicit in normalizing this for our students. If the goal is complete abolition of the police, we need to think about the other cops that need abolishing too. We need to abolish a system of schooling that is as embedded in control and policing, specifically policing along race and class lines; that is complicit in beating down “irredeemable” students, instead of providing them access to resources. Police abolitionists demand this from local governments in response to disbanding police departments, perhaps we should be looking at other systemic “cops,” demanding their abolition, and replacement with something more just and egalitarian as well.
I made sure that I told them I was leaving at a time when it would be most difficult to fill the position, and made it very clear that I didn’t care how hard it was on the administrators that I had bowed out so late. They even tried to shame me out of taking a better job. I should have joined the irredeemables years ago.