Schools, and particularly their Tone, Climate and Culture-setting principals, fail too often to come up with the necessary strategic, operational, visionary tactics to make their schools secure and safe environments. They don’t have a “prevent plan” to help get their kids to act and behave with a moral, compassionate sensitivity toward other students. And when these students don’t behave properly (as will often happen with children), have measures in place to detect and correct any “teachable-time” negative behaviors. Many principals I have met lack the moral courage or professional wisdom to have an “uncomfortable” staff discussion about ‘race.’ They are deficient in the area of ethical leadership skills that would lead to professionally developing teachers into taking some responsibility for helping students to learn: “How we should treat and take care of each other in this school.”
One way that students will learn the rubrics or rules of conduct for the school’s approach to kindness is by watching how teachers treat their fellow students, and particularly those children that society has relegated and demoted to the status of “other.” Did some teacher at McKenzie’s school (or, I am afraid to ask, school administrator) notice McKenzie being racially bullied and just told her tormentors to “cut it out” and then moved on? Was some adult not fully aware of the enormous revelation of the school’s true cultural beliefs on display by these racial taunting behaviors? Or, was the severely painful implications of the actions of the tormentors on the psyche and personhood of McKenzie? Were McKenzie’s white assailants suspended with the speed, efficiency and severity level by which so many Black students in this nation are chronically over-punished in schools?
I have unfortunately heard too many educators claim proudly: “I don’t see color.” But that assertion is not only ignorantly false, it is also as we see in these types of tragedies, dangerously false because it translates into: “I don’t protect what I don’t see!” As a principal, I made a conscious and deliberate effort to see my students who were: Asian, Black, Latino, White, LGBTQ, introverted-quiet, the artistically (and perhaps slightly or a lot eccentric) creative kids, young people who were “engaged” with the criminal justice system, the “504’s” and/or those students suffering from chronic debilitating diseases, students who themselves were parents, English-language learners, Special Education students, children with one or both parents incarcerated, Black or Latino kids who enjoyed engaging in non-stereotypical interests, sports or social activities, students who for very different and difficult reasons were being raised by grandparents, Muslims, the “nerds,” children who were homeless, students with military parents deployed in war zones, students living in group homes, students who themselves and/or their parents were undocumented US residents, those in foster care, Black boys who wanted to be smart, girls who had the ability but were hesitant about pursuing a STEM major in college, the newly arrived to America, etc. I saw them all because I wished to extend an extra institutional wing of protection over them, I needed them to feel welcomed and empowered, to experience the feeling of being safe, if nowhere else, to at least feel safe in their own school. My wish was that all of these students would succeed as their best selves would allow. I did not want them to die. But how could I succeed in protecting these students if I pretended not to see them? Did the principal at McKenzie’s school see her?
Educators who can’t “see” students–meaning seeing their challenges, the discriminatory and prejudicial beliefs and practices they are subject to–the socioeconomic barriers they are forced to overcome can’t effectively advocate for these children. And when the school itself is the “hurting and harming agent,” then the disenfranchised and marginalized members of the student body, like McKenzie, are in “grave, physical and failing to learn” danger.
Students take their “how to treat others” cues from the adults in the building, the staff members take their empathy and efficacy cues from the principal. The principal who is unable or unwilling to make their school a physical and learning safe zone for all children should check in with their professional moral compass, or at least start the process by acquiring one. For only then will they be able to see the many McKenzie’s living hurt in their school’s societally assigned hurting seats.