The website for Congress Elementary School in Wisconsin proclaims its lofty mission statement with pride:
Congress Year Round School is committed to creating a well-prepared and caring community of learners, where students work hard to be successful and the learning never stops.
and images of happy black children smile out to website visitors as if to confirm both the schools diversity and its stated commitment. No doubt a week ago, there would be no irony here.
This week however, is different.
An unidentified teacher at Congress Elementary humiliated a 7 year old black child in front of her peers for playing with her hair. According to the 7 year old, her teacher called her to the front of the room after she did not stop playing with her braids during class. The teacher then took out the large scissors issued to elementary teachers from her desk and cut off one of the child’s braids. The 7 year old went back to her desk and cried. Her peers laughed while the teacher is reported to have said “Now what you gonna go home and say to your momma?” (see KCCI) a clear threat to an already broken child.
If the story ended there, it would already be inexplicable. In the state where I teach, you cannot touch a student for any reason except an emergency. In most states, there are rules governing how you can and cannot touch your students even when they are adults in university. On the basis of these rules alone, the teacher was out of line. But even if these rules did not exist, the blatant violation of this black child’s bodily integrity for the sole purpose of humiliating her in front of her peers would be inexcusable.
Or would it?
According to the 7 year olds mother, Helen Cunningham, the teacher attempted to explain away her behavior by saying, “I was frustrated” (ibid) though she did also offer an apology.
The school leadership claims they are “pursuing district policies” with the handling of the teacher; but so far, they have allowed her to remain in the classroom. Instead of putting the teacher on leave pending an investigation (hello look into the garbage can, find the braid, case closed), they have moved the 7 year old child into a new class. While this certainly will help mediate anxiety the child likely has about returning to school it sends the message to her and to her peers that there are no consequences for violating the physical integrity of little black girls.
To add to the insult, the little girl’s name and photo have been circulated by the media, as they contacted the media after hearing the teacher was not being suspended, but the teacher’s name and image have been withheld. The official website for the school no longer has a viable link to the staff roster either. So the offender is being protected while the victim is on display. And while the child’s mother has given consent, one has to factor in that Helen Cunningham felt the media was a better bet for helping her child after the school failed to do anything to remove the teacher from the classroom. (I was able to find a backdoor way into the staff roster, unfortunately, there are 11 different 1st and 2nd grade teachers at Congress Elementary, so I am not sure who the teacher in question is.)
The Wisconsin police on the other hand, have been trying to resolve the issue with appropriate sanction. Initially they referred the case to the District Attorney’s office for possible criminal charges for mental or physical abuse charges. THE DISTRICT ATTORNEY DECLINED. So the police, believing this incident needed to be reprimanded, cited the teacher for disorderly conduct. The crime carries with it a $175 fine.
Ultimately, this is a story that has become all too familiar. Congress Elementary is a school with 94% black student enrollment and 78% of students qualifying for free lunch, ie the bulk of their students are black working class and subsistence level children. (see student stats here) At the same time, slightly less than 1/2 of their teachers have 5 years or more of teaching experience and less than 40% have a Masters Degree of any kind, including a Masters of Arts in Teaching. (see faculty stats here) In other words, this situation is a reflection of an ongoing problem in which schools that serve primarily poor and working class children of color are taught by underprepared and under-educated teachers. Teachers who are easily frustrated by common childhood behaviors. And in this case, as in the case of the black child handcuffed by her teacher in NYC and the black child beaten by a school security guard in CA last year, it is becoming far too common for school employees to respond to their frustration with violence against black youth.
While many have commented on the racial overtones of this case, the teacher’s race has been withheld. It would be impossible to argue that cutting a black child’s braid was not an act of racial violation. Whether that violation was enacted by someone who understood how profound that violence was because they internalized the history of the auction block and the meaning of interfering with a black girl’s hair or because they simply understood racial dominance from the role of oppressor, is irrelevant. The bottom line is that cutting that child’s hair was an act of intimidation predicated on the intersections of age, race, and gender.
This case highlights a growing problem of emotional and physical violence against both poor children and children of color, especially in poor neighborhoods, by school officials. Given the high profile attention that the President and several long time, some famous, community advocates have placed on unsafe schools the boldness with which this teacher, the District Attorney’s Office, and to some extent the school itself (which did issue a public apology via the media) have handled this case cannot be ignored. The message sent is that black children are not safe in school and when they are abused, it is their fault. If they can’t prove fault openly, it’s ok because the public perception of black criminality will be underscored by the failure to punish anyone who perpetrates against them. Ultimately, we must decide as a society that violence against any youth for any reason is unacceptable and that violence against black girls is not some proof of black barbarity but rather proof that schools are failing all of us.
- the child, whose name you may note I am not using on purpose, whose hair was cut/AP
- Milwaukie County District Attorney John T. Chisholm/unattributed