The tragic death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida reminded me of an incident that happened four years ago in the San Francisco Bay Area where racism reared its ugly head to a black teenager on his way to school.
I was working with a charter school, the Impact Academy of Hayward, and was there on that morning when two gunmen stole a car and were attempting armed robberies near the school. While in pursuit of the gunmen, the police mistook a 14-year-old student of the school for one of them. Dwayne, a charming, warm and easygoing young man, was shoved to the ground and handcuffed. Six police officers aimed their weapons at him and demanded that he not move. Jen Davis Wickens, the superb school principal, saw this incident and ran out to tell the police that they had the wrong person, but the officers held Dwayne on the ground for about another half hour before releasing him. One might expect Dwayne to have been upset and angry, but instead, as he told me in a private discussion, "I'm not mad. This happens to me in my neighborhood all the time." Although I am grateful for the diligence of the police in making a split-second decision that may have prevented an armed criminal from getting loose in the school, the possibility of racial profiling and the officers' refusal to immediately release Dwayne are very bothersome.
In a community meeting with all the students, Principal Wickens asked how many other students had experienced being wrongly accused. Far too many indicated an affirmative answer. For most educators, this is hard to imagine. Few of us have ever been wrongly accused of a crime or had six guns pointed at our heads. After an incident like this, is it even possible to get back to teaching and learning math and science?*
We have come a long way in America fighting racism, but lest we think we are close enough to reconciliation to congratulate ourselves, we need to remember communities like Hayward, California and Sanford, Florida. Every teacher and administrator in America must model, practice and insist upon fighting racism at every opportunity. Trayvon Martin must not be forgotten, and incidents like this must stop once and for all.
*This story originally appeared in Curwin, Mendler and Mendler, Discipline with Dignity, 3rd Edition: New Challenges, New Solutions (ASCD 2010).