Our Black Boys Should Be Wearing School Uniforms, Not Orange Jumpsuits

Oct 19, 2016 12:00:00 AM


As I pull up to the juvenile courthouse, my heart fills with anxiety. I’m crushed. How did he sleep last night? Did anyone try to hurt him? Intimidate him? Then there’s the security scan. “No sir, I’m not carrying my phone,” I say with slight attitude. “No one likes this part,” the younger security officer says with empathy as he sees the frustrated, yet worried expression on my face. I’m strong. I worked in the mental health field for about five years before working exclusively with children, and in that line of work, one learns to accept that the life expectancy of those living with mental illness is decreased. You learn to accept that some patients just get worse over time, not better. Acceptance of this hard truth simply becomes a part of the job. But there’s something different about working with kids. Something drastically different. Something emotionally different. These are kids. I’m writing this piece as I await a court hearing for one of the many students I advise. He is a freshman male student who just within the short time since we met has developed an attachment to me as if he were my own son. A freshman boy who, unbeknownst to me until hours afterward, had been arrested the previous day at school. His mother did not receive a phone call. No one made an effort to apprehend him quietly or in a way that wouldn’t create a spectacle at the school; if not for the dean pleading with them to allow him to be walked out instead of forcibly removed from class, the impact on students and staff would have been far greater. Instead the scene was over four black cars, more than a dozen law enforcement officers, and a young boy who had just celebrated his 14th birthday. If I had been there I would have had so many questions. What are the charges? Why are you arresting him in this way? Can we at least bring him outside to you? Maybe I wouldn’t have gotten any answers. Maybe my questions would have escalated the situation further. But how could I stay silent?

The Pain of Our Black Boys

I won’t drag readers through the sordid details of dueling parents willing to sacrifice their child’s future in order to escape the consequences of their own actions. Suffice it to say, it’s very sad. And really rotten luck for the children stuck in the crosshairs of it all. But this is just one example of a much larger problem when it comes to our Black boys. While reports indicate that juvenile arrests have decreased since 2004, the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights tells us that “African-American youth are vastly more likely to be arrested.” arrest-by-race-2015-1024x410 And if my experience today sitting in this courtroom is any indication, that seems to be playing out here in New Orleans. I watched teenager after teenager enter the judge’s chambers. All but three were Black. I found myself wondering if those three had been taking from their schools in an unmarked car. I wondered if they would be released or remanded. I wondered about a lot of things. Then out walked that young man who I spend my days high fiving and nudging along to class; that young man who lights up and smiles when he sees me. Except this time, there was no smile. And despite the bright orange jumpsuit, there was no brightness emanating from him today. Just shame. He held his head low. I imagine deep down inside he was happy to see me, but he couldn’t show that. He was just a scared boy. Upon being released on a signature bond, he emerged from the confinement of security in tears. My heart broke. But I reminded myself, I’m here for support. So I reminded him and his family to celebrate that instead of being remanded, he will head home with them. Now out of the orange jumpsuit, I noticed he was still wearing his school uniform. He asked me if I’d be heading back to school. This made me sad. Here was a student who didn’t get into trouble at school. A student who felt safe at school and wanted to return with me. Thankfully, he will get to return to school but there will be more court appearances and the uncertainty of what his future will be. Perhaps a silver lining, if there is one at all, is that he says he’s happy he’ll be able to return to school and has expressed being committed to working harder than ever. He’s grateful. And, so, here I am. I find myself moving deeper into thought about what’s happening with our Black boys. What they face, what they see, what they know. And the truth is, our kids confront so much in their personal lives that neither you nor I can even imagine. The harsh realities of their lives outside of school coupled with the structures and boundaries placed on them during the school day can make school feel impossible for some. For many of our boys, school is a world that is completely different from the one in which they wake up and go to bed. And still, they show up each day and do their best. And while their best may not always match up to our expectations of what one’s best should look like, these boys are resilient and remarkable.
An original version of this post appeared on Second Line Education Blog as The Pain of Loving Our Black Boys.

Danielle Sanders

Danielle Sanders is a school behavior interventionist in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is responsible for implementing restorative practices as a behavioral intervention to support scholars when demonstrating behaviors that are not in line with school culture. Danielle blogs about education in Louisiana at Second Line Blog.

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