Today, in certain North Carolina counties, the Proud Boys and their allies are actively attacking the institution of public education. Conservatives in our General Assembly are calling for the banning of books that are honest about our nation’s complex racial history. Meanwhile, Lieutenant Governor Robinson is looking for ways to punish teachers for being culturally responsive. It’s clear, now is the time for us to take a stand to protect our most vulnerable students. I remember times when I was a Durham Public Schools student that I wished 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 most, it was business as usual. For me, it was a step into a day that I expected to provide a sense of normalcy over the tumultuous events of the night before. We filed to our seats and prepared for the day’s labs, the smell of burning permeated the room left over from the class before us. Our energetic, sincere, white second-year teacher addressed me just as I sat on the barstool. She held up the newspaper and said: “Millicent, is this your dad in today’s paper?”
The tears that formed in my eyes that day twenty-four years ago are coming to the surface as I write this.
I hadn’t even told my friends (my boyfriend at the time knew because his dad was one of the responding officers), but the news of my father killing a man in self-defense at our home was not yet public knowledge. When the teacher abruptly confronted me in such a humiliating, public way, I didn’t respond well. I was a 14-year-old girl that was embarrassed that her loving father had been arrested. I didn’t fully understand yet the circumstances of the events from the night before and behaved poorly. I threw the stool that I had just been sitting on across the room.
As I reflect on this experience, I feel intensely that no child should have to experience such a traumatizing event. It’s tempting to think that removing the teacher would “fix” the problem and ensure that no other child ever has to be the victim of such harmful, insensitive words or such public shaming. But even had an administrator walked into the room, escorted that teacher out, and made sure she never came back again, I still would have returned again and again to a school that was not equipped to provide a trauma-informed response to me and other students.
There is no doubt that there are some poor teachers in DPS who are not willing to do the work required to make school a safe place for all students—even as most DPS educators are deeply committed to equity and trauma-informed approaches. Of course, I fully support Durham Public Schools in utilizing the Code of Conduct and other measures to hold them accountable and, if needed, remove them from their positions. But pretending that removing a few bad apples will “fix” our public schools for Black and brown children is short-sighted. It ignores years of underfunding by the state and county; a dearth of nurses, school counselors, and social workers; and unequally resourced neighborhood schools.
Here’s what I wish would have happened on that awful day: I wish the teacher had been trained and educated well about creating a trauma-informed classroom. I wish she had spoken to me privately, expressing her sorrow and asking me how she could help. When she observed signs of distress, I wish that she had sent me to a counselor—with room on her schedule—to really process my grief and shock. I wish I’d been shown support, kindness, and acceptance, not only that day but for the rest of the school year.
For these things to occur, we have to invest in our educators, as well as our students. We have to give them a chance to have the energy and 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 humane, sustainable system that teaches and supports educators so they can respond to all students with respect. I will fight for all schools to have enough support staff so students can receive the counseling and support they need. I will be a voice for students and family who are experiencing unimaginable hardship.
It’s easy to think we can make change by removing a few racist educators, when really we need to do more to break systemic barriers. We can and must do better for our students, and knocking a few bricks off the wall of white supremacy isn’t enough. We must completely dismantle the systems of oppression barring our Black and brown students from achieving the peace and prosperity they deserve.
The writer is a candidate for Durham Board of Education, Consolidated District B.
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