reality TV

At one high school, Black History Month looks to the present

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At East Brooklyn Community High School, as at many city schools, Black History Month brought an assembly to celebrate the many achievements of black Americans.

But the small transfer high school in Brownsville also took a less traditional approach to the month. It convened students to watch and discuss a documentary about the United States government’s war on drugs, which has landed millions of black Americans in prison.

“A lot of schools are afraid to do something political for Black History Month,” said science teacher Amy Fitch. “This is a political film, but I think our students can handle it. Politics are part of life, and our students are affected by politics all the time.”

The film, “The House I Live In,” looks at the drug war from the perspective of inmates, law enforcement officers, journalists, professors, and members of local communities, with particular emphasis on the drug war’s disproportionate effect on black Americans. It won the Grand Jury documentary prize at the Sundance Film Festival last month.

Several East Brooklyn Community High students saw the film last semester as part of their “Talking About Race” elective course and worked with their teacher, Deborah Schaeffer, to organize a screening for the whole school. It was the first time the three-year-old school had set aside an afternoon for all 200 students to see and discuss a film together.

“When I first saw the film, it showed me things I didn’t know,” said Mike Muir, one of Schaeffer’s students. “There are scenes that are going to get attention. Kids are going to take something away from it.”

Fifteen minutes after the school day ended last Monday, several students and teachers remained deep in conversation about what they had seen — and whether it was worth seeing in school.

One senior said she was not sure there was a point in showing the film. “It’s just the fact that — what is this going to change?” Ranitta said. “You keep showing what we’re doing wrong, showing us what black people did. It’s Black History Month. I want to hear the good that we did.”

But her view appeared to be in the minority. “There are real issues that need to be talked about,” Muir countered.

“You’re always talking about how [school] is not relevant to my life. This … relates to our lives,” said Jenna, also a senior.

“I want to hear something that connects to my life” when Black History Month rolls around, she added. “This does, even if you’ve never done drugs, even if you’ve never been locked up. This is why the police are in my hood, why my hood looks the way it does, why we don’t have healthy food.”

“Instead of sending us to jail, they should give us rehab so we can do something,” said another student, Isaiah, reflecting on a law enforcement official in the film who said that when funding gets tight, rehabilitation programs are always the first to go.

“We’re not saying drugs are right,” Jenna said. “But if you’re not helping us to rehabilitate ourselves, you’re not teaching us to live in society. … That’s not changing anything, that’s not forcing anything to change.

English teacher Tessa Corcoran-Sayers said the discussion in her group centered on a statistic cited in the film: Children of incarcerated parents are more likely to end up in jail themselves.

“Students who have family members in jail wanted to talk about what that meant and who was saying it,” Corcoran-Sayers said. They were wondering, she said, “If my dad’s incarcerated, what does that mean for me?”

The real measure of the activity’s success, Muir said, is whether the conversations “get out of this school.”

“Who’s going to go home and give it to someone else, tell their mom what they learned, go over and tell their friends what they learned?” he wondered aloud.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede