Jun 10, 2013

An Open Letter to the West Liberty Police Department

West Liberty Police Department
409 N. Calhoun St.
West Liberty, IA 52776

To Whom it May Concern:

On Sunday, June 9th I drove through your town of West Liberty on my way home from Muscatine. My 13-year old son and his friend were in the backseat playing music and talking about their little league baseball tournament, which had ended just over an hour earlier. They chose to drive through West Liberty instead of taking Interstate-80 because it is more scenic, and I was happy to oblige.

We were driving on Columbus St. when I saw a car coming towards me from a side street. It seemed to be driving quickly, so I glanced to make sure it stopped before entering the flow of traffic. I then proceeded on Columbus after realizing that the car was a West Liberty Police Department vehicle. The officer turned left onto Columbus and began following me. At first he was driving at a reasonable distance and I assumed he was on his way to some specific location. Then he sped up quickly and drove extremely close to my bumper.

I was not exceeding the speed limit. It was daytime, and there was no need for me to have on headlights. My taillights and turn signals all work correctly. There are no dents or signs of damage on the exterior of my vehicle. I was simply driving home with two 13-year old boys in the backseat. There is absolutely no reason I can think of for an officer to run my license plate through the system at all. Is it standard practice for your officers to randomly run the plates of vehicles that are not in any way breaking the law?

The officer obviously did run my plates--even though there was no reason to-- because a few seconds later his lights went on. I immediately pulled over and looked for my license, registration and insurance information. As I did, I saw that my registration had expired. We recently acquired our vehicle from my parents, and when he registered the vehicle my husband assumed that our plates would be renewed at the same time as the title transfer. He was wrong. For that reason only I am glad that the officer stopped me to let me know about the violation. I am an extremely law-abiding citizen--2 speeding tickets in 27 years of driving are my only offenses. It bothered me immensely to know that I’ve been breaking the law unknowingly. By the time you receive this letter, my tags will be renewed and my check will be on its way to the Muscatine County Courthouse to pay my fine. Whether it be voting in every possible election, serving as a juror when called, or obeying the laws of the roadways--I always do my best to be a good citizen.

It is because I always do my best to be a good citizen that I am angry. The officer who pulled me over had absolutely no good reason to do so. I was not breaking any law. The registration sticker on my license plate is covered by the plastic holder that came with the car from my parent’s car dealer. He had no way of knowing it was expired just by looking at the car. I was not speeding or driving erratically, and nothing on my vehicle was damaged or malfunctioning.  The only possible reason I can think of for an officer to stop me is because of the race of my passengers---my son is biracial and his friend is black. Two young black men in the back seat, wearing baseball caps and listening to music. Is that suspicious in West Liberty?

The officer’s hands were shaking when he took my license and registration. They were shaking again when he handed me the ticket. Does he have Parkinson’s? Was he overly caffeinated? Or was he afraid of a middle-aged teacher and two 13-year old little league baseball players?

I can’t help but wonder if the officer would’ve made the stop if the boys in the backseat had been white instead of black. Please ask yourselves that question--would your officers run the license plates of a vehicle that is driven by a middle-aged white woman with 2 white boys in the backseat, when that vehicle is in good shape and the driver is obeying all traffic laws? Because I can tell you that I have never, ever heard any other white mom of white kids talk about getting pulled over for no logical reason. And because of that, I am deeply offended and hurt. It was painful to have to drive the rest of the way home and give my 13-year old passengers tips for the future: to tell them that when they are old enough to drive, if they get pulled over they need to make sure they keep their hands on the steering wheel at all times to make sure the officer doesn’t get scared of them just because they are young black men. It was upsetting to have to talk to them about the fact that even though West Liberty is one of the most diverse cities in Iowa, it obviously still lacks the ability to see young men of color as human beings deserving of respect. It was hard to tell them that maybe we should stick to the Interstate next time and forget about driving through West Liberty.

If it is standard practice to randomly run the license plates of perfectly law-abiding citizens, please let me know so that I can try to adjust my negative feelings about your police department. You may also want to reconsider that practice, as it does not seem like a very effective use of officers’ time. 

If it is not standard practice, I encourage you to ask your officers to participate in some diversity training. The two young black men in the backseat of my car both come from very good, law-abiding families. Both are good students, going into 8th grade, who love sports. Both are excellent big brothers, great sons, and have been recognized for their leadership and citizenship. One of them has dreamed of either being a professional athlete or a police officer since he was 2 years old. Encounters like the one we had in your town are beginning to change his mind, though. There is no reason that one officer’s prejudice should do that.


Jennifer Marshall Duncan

Note: This letter is being sent to the West Liberty Police Department and to the Muscatine County Courthouse via USPS.

May 7, 2013

Voting for Justice

Today is an Election Day in my community. Election Day is something I usually take very seriously. I sincerely believe in using my right to vote as a means of expressing my beliefs, telling public officials how I feel. If I don't vote, I am sending a silent message of acceptance for the status quo. Not voting, to me, is a shame. It means giving up my right to complain about anything after Election Day, because I didn't use my voice in my vote--where it really can make a difference.

But today...I just don't know if I can vote. I see both sides of the issue and can't figure out which side is the one I most believe in; or even if I have consider all the sides at all--because I think this is not just a two-sided issue.

Today, my community is voting for the second time on whether or not to build a new Justice Center. More office space, a modern courtroom, and more jail cells.  It's that last part that gets me.

Right now our jails are overcrowded. We are spending lots and lots of money to ship our prisoners to other counties' jails. We could save a lot if we expanded the jail to keep our prisoners here.  But the fact of the matter is, that my community is like almost every other in the U.S.A.: a disproportionate number of our prisoners are Black men. Young, black men. And I don't believe that we need more cells to hold those young men. I believe we need more programs to help them: job training programs, more affordable housing, a higher wage.

Building more cells might save the county money. Maybe a lot of money. If there was a guarantee that the money saved would be invested into a program that works to prevent the arrest and re-arrest of the young Black men in my community, I would vote yes. But if that money is not invested in anything but building more cells for prisoners, I can't help but think that my community plans to fill them up.

Mar 31, 2013

The Myth of Failing Schools and the Impact of Socio-Economic Privilege

"Schools are killing creativity!"     

 "The only thing schools teach is how to be obedient employees."   

 "We should teach kids to trust their intuition instead of teaching them to obey." 

These are all things I've seen tweeted or posted on blogs in the past week. And each time I read a comment like that I get upset. You may wonder, "WHY? It's true! We are training kids to respond to bells, to sit and be respectful. Our factory model of education hasn't changed even though our society has!" 

We are bombarded with messages about failing schools and how to fix them, falling rankings in test scores, and the loss of U.S. ability to compete in the global marketplace. But all of those negative messages don't tell the whole story of what goes on in schools. 

There are two big reasons why I get upset by comments like those I've seen on Twitter and in blog comments recently: first, they are blanket statements meant to characterize all schools; and second, they are extremely privileged statements.

Read on to see what I mean...

Like any stereotype--aiming a blanket statement at an entire group of people who share the same religion, ethnicity, race, sexual preference, or gender--stereotypes about public schools HURT. There are so many good schools out there! Check out this "failing" school's amazing success at getting kids motivated to learn, engaging them in their community, and helping them DREAM BIG:

UNDERDOGS- The Story of a Successful Public School from Think Ten Media Group on Vimeo.

Yes, the school in the video is focusing on test scores; but is that killing their creativity? When kids sit and dream about the president visiting their school--is that just blind obedience? The fact is that the assessments the kids take are used as tools to help teachers figure out how to teach them better. Many of the kids in the video started out reading far below grade level, and it was the tests that let teachers know that they needed to do more intensive teaching to help them. It is the assessments that let teachers know when they've been making progress. And that progress can't be made without assessing students regularly to see what they are learning.

If you think that all schools are killing creativity, that all schools teach only how to be blindly obedient workers, then you are making a hurtful, stereotypical statement. You hurt not only the creative students who are successful every day in public schools, but you also hurt those of us who work in public education. Many students and teachers work as partners in the educational process, creatively working together each day toward the goal of learning together. You do an extreme disservice to the thousands of teachers and administrators who put students first each and every day, and to the hundreds of thousands of students who thrive in public schools.

Not only are statements assuming that, "all schools kill creativity," stereotypical, they are also extremely privilegedI often read and hear people complaining about school policies that reward behaviors such as being respectful, responsible, and showing good citizenship. I often hear people complaining that programs like PBIS discourage individuality, kill creativity, and only teach obedience. I believe that most of those complaints come from people who have socioeconomic privilege.

When you grow up with one or two parents who have regular, steady jobs, are able to provide food, shelter and clothing for you, and have a college education--you probably know some things about how mainstream society works. You know that it is considered respectful (to your friends, your boss, your teacher) if you show up on time to appointments. You know that yelling at people in a public place is probably not going to be considered acceptable behavior. You know that it is considered rude to talk about sex in public, that cursing is considered crass, that certain clothing is appropriate in certain situations. When you grow up in an economically stable household with educated parents, you probably have regular check-ups and know about personal hygiene. You are most likely exposed to books before entering kindergarten, and have someone who either reads to you or lets you watch some preschool educational programs on TV that help you learn letter and number identification. You probably know what it's like to have privacy in your  own home, and can find a space to be alone. You most likely feel  hungry, but don't have to wait a full day or more for a meal. You probably learn at a young age that stealing is wrong, that drugs and alcohol are harmful, and that eating too much junk food isn't healthy.

I grew up in a middle class household with two working, college-educated parents. I learned all of that and more. But there are many, many kids who don't grow up with any of that.

I have spent my 15-year teaching career working with kids who don't have the privileges I had growing up. Do I want my students to think creatively? YES! But to many kids in poverty, the things they think creatively about are how to get their next meal, where to get clothes that fit, and how to make money to support their families----fast.  Their intuition tells them that stealing gets them food now. Their instincts tell them that a big chain store has plenty of money already and won't miss a couple of pairs of blue jeans. They creatively look for ways to sneak out of stores with items that will help their families without getting caught.

One of my current students is 16 years old and lives in a 2-parent household. Less than two years ago, the family lived in Chicago. They lived in a part of the city that was no place to raise a family--lots of gun violence and gang activity. They didn't want to stay there, so they moved to Iowa. His parents have had difficulty getting and maintaining jobs, so they have moved around--from apartment, to house, to pay-by-the-day motel--just to keep the family sheltered. At times, my student has lived with as many as 8 other people in a one-bedroom space. He describes an environment where neighbors are not violent (like in Chicago) but are drug users, alcoholics, and sexually active in public. His "normal" does not include any of what was normal for me growing up: a knowledge of language that is appropriate, what it means to be respectful, what it looks like to be polite.

When he first moved here, he learned quickly about some things that are unacceptable in our area. He and his brother saw so many houses with stuff that they'd never had before; they were shocked. They had almost nothing--very little food, very little clothing, and a very small apartment for their large family. They thought about how people with big houses had so much, and could probably make it just fine with fewer things. They wanted to help their family. Intuition told them that it is their responsibility to help feed their family. Following their instincts, they robbed a house. Then they got caught, and were sentenced to several months in juvenile detention. As a result of that whole experience, my student now knows that thinking creatively about how to get new clothes and food for his family is not the best way to think if he wants to stay free. His choice had a consequence. And I am proud to say that at school we are doing our best to kill the kind of creative thinking he was doing when he first moved to Iowa...

See, our society requires some obedience. It requires us to follow certain laws that keep us safe. It requires us to pay our own way, to buy our own food, clothing, and shelter. The only way to pay our own way is to get a job. The only way to get and keep a job is to know what it looks like to be responsible, and respectful. A lot of kids don't learn that at home anymore. And we can lament that fact, we can complain about parents who don't do a good job of teaching their kids, we can blame the economy or the president or any number of other people. But blaming doesn't change the fact that we have lots of kids in schools who aren't growing up with the privilege of knowing how mainstream society works. Many schools have decided that complaining doesn't do any good--we need to teach. 

So we teach--about the importance of being on time, about not cursing, about pulling up your pants, about not being on your cell phone when someone is trying to have a conversation with you, about not calling people offensive names. We look for ways to reward students who know how to communicate effectively, to accept feedback, to show up on time. We work on skills that we know are necessary for students to have in the workplace--whether they are fast-food workers or corporate CEOs.

When we don't work on these skills with students who live in poverty, we are continuing the cycle of poverty. When we neglect to share what we have learned through our privilege, we are acting as oppressors. Refusing to share our knowledge of what it takes to be successful in the U.S.  is an attempt to maintain our privilege.

Parents or community members who are offended that schools spend time sharing knowledge that comes from privilege may not realize that they are helping to continue the cycle of poverty--but they are. This document from the U.S. Census Bureau discusses child poverty in depth. I encourage you to read through it and see the startling numbers, to think about what they mean. Children in poverty are less likely to be successful in school, less likely to hold regular jobs, more likely to be incarcerated. We need to help kids learn what it will take to be successful. While creative thinking, following intuition, and challenging authority are all important skills that have revolutionized our country, we need to make sure that all children understand that there are also some basic behaviors that we must learn to keep society running smoothly. We can't drive whatever speed we want to, show up to work whenever we feel like it, curse at patrons, or take things that don't belong to us. And we cannot assume that all kids come to school knowing what those of us who grew up with privilege know.

Most schools that focus on behavioral supports are not trying to create automatons who blindly follow directions. They are trying to level the playing field. They are trying to give many students who live in poverty access to the kinds of knowledge that privileged students have access to. Increasingly, our schools are filled with kids who need help learning all sorts of basic skills--not just reading, writing, and math, but also appropriate behavior. Is there really something wrong with teaching all of that?

Mar 18, 2013

Teaching and School Violence

In December of 2012, the second deadliest act of school violence in America happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Stories of fear, sadness, and of survival filled the news. Teachers everywhere cried for our fallen colleagues as stories of their heroism spread. Almost everyone in the field of education had to take pause to think, even if only for a brief second, "How would I react if that happened at my school?"

We don't want to think about it. We don't want to think that it could happen. We don't want to admit that it was real.

But regular incidents of school violence make it hard to avoid this thought--it could happen. It could happen anywhere. 

Soon after the Sandy Hook shooting, my school announced an in-service on responding to school violence. Our large staff gathered in the cafeteria to listen to a local police officer talk about our current policy--one of locking down classrooms, locking down the building, and having the office be the main source of communication inside and outside of the building. The officer said that recent acts of shooting violence show that maybe the policy of locking down is not the best policy. Maybe teachers and school staff need to have more autonomy in crisis situations. He cited examples of teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary who reacted to the crisis in ways that saved lives--even though their actions may not have been sanctioned by the school crisis plan. New ideas about preparing for school violence indicate that teachers should be able to make decisions themselves--about whether to flee, find a good hiding spot for students, or stand their ground and fight. We watched the video below outlining the choices in a new kind of training--A.L.I.C.E. (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate.)

After watching the video, we had time for Q&A, and then we broke into small discussion groups. We were given scenarios to talk about, asked to hypothetically apply A.L.I.C.E. protocols and take notes about what would need to happen in our school to make the new protocols possible. We sat around discussing what we would do if a student told us that she suspected one of her peers had a gun in his backpack. We talked about what would happen if there was an active shooter in the building who violently attacked the secretaries first, leaving our communications hub without any staff to let the rest of us know what was happening. Everything was very professional, very calm. We took notes about the fact that our school doesn't have the right kind of classroom door locks to lock out an intruder, that our intercom system is not very effective, and really thought about changes that need to happen to keep our school community safe.

And then we got out of in-service and I fell apart. We had spent 2 hours matter-of-factly talking about an active shooter in our building. Some teachers were envisioning throwing kids out the second story window to the courtyard below to keep them alive. We talked about running to nearby houses to escape being shot. I was thinking about the heroes of Sandy Hook and wondering if I would be able to give my life to save my students. Could I really, in an instant, put myself in harm's way to save the life of someone else's child....leaving my own children motherless?

When it comes down to it, I don't think any amount of training is going to answer those questions. Like so many things in life, you really don't know how you'll react until it's happening. But local police and our district administrators want us to keep thinking about how we'll react. They even want us to practice. They say, "We practice fire drills even though there are rarely school fires. We practice tornado drills even though there are rarely tornadoes that touch down on school buildings. We need to practice how to respond to an active shooting situation, even though the likelihood of that situation occurring is small."

So we had a second in-service. This time we met in the theater and the officer in charge of the training asked for volunteers. A group of ten colleagues sat on the stage as victims. They pretended to hide from an active shooter. An eleventh colleague got an orange rubber replica of a handgun, and entered from off-stage. He was instructed to find everyone and pretend to shoot them. Within a few seconds, everyone was dead.  The officer then had the shooter go back offstage and told us that we'd just seen the result of a policy that says we must lockdown in a crisis situation. Things could be different if we used A.L.I.C.E. techniques. We could fight back. He handed out tennis balls to the staff that had previously just been hiding, and he asked the pretend-shooter to return. This time, when he entered he was bombarded with tennis balls. Those who were previously victims, now had the time to run, hide, or find something else to use in self-defense. The officer talked about items in our classrooms that can be turned into barricades or projectiles--things that could protect us. He gave tips on how to prevent the shooter from being able to use his gun--hang on to his arm using all of your weight, wrap yourself around his legs so he can't walk.

During this in-service, I found myself daydreaming. I kept trying to bring myself back, to pay attention to what was being said...but I couldn't. I kept shutting it out.  I kept saying to myself, "I don't want to think about this. I don't want to think that this could happen. I don't want this to be real."  

I don't know how I would react. All I know is that in my job, every day is different. I have spent 15 years working with kids who have significant behavioral and emotional challenges. I never know what kind of day it will be, what will happen. But so far I have survived. I can only hope that if some act of violence happened, I would survive. I don't know if I could rise to the level of heroism shown by Dawn Hochsprung, Victoria Soto and Mary Sherlach, who all lost their lives protecting kids at Sandy Hook Elementary. It is painfully hard to even think about. But it is reality. Teachers have to worry about Core Curriculum, integrating technology, closing the Achievement Gap, evaluations, assessments, diminishing budgets...and how to react to an active shooting event. Somehow, that last part isn't something I ever thought I'd had to prepare for when I decided to become a teacher.


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