Thursday, September 1, 2011

Crying Wolf: Another Unnecessary Lockdown In Oakland

Oakland Unified School District has now locked down three schools within the first two days of the school year. In at least one of the cases, officials admitted that the children’s safety was never in jeopardy, which begs the question: Why were children’s personal freedom, comfort and learning undermined by being confined to their classroom for hours?

In the latest incident, children at Oakland's Horace Mann Elementary School were locked in their classrooms for most of Tuesday, while police searched for suspects in a string of early-morning home-invasion robberies, the Bay Citizen reported today. OUSD spokesman Troy Flint said that Oakland schools experience lockdowns two to four times per week on average and largely as a precaution. “That figure doesn’t really represent an imminent threat to the school.”

Flint specifically stated that the 350 children at Horace Mann were not in danger. The men surrendered voluntarily to the police, except for one suspect who was obese and got stuck in his hiding place and had to be rescued by the fire department.

Despite the lack of danger, parents were forced to wait over an hour to pick up their children in the afternoon. Many complained that the school did not explain the process sufficiently to them.

Regardless, one has to wonder if there is a better alternative to locking kids in their classrooms for hours at a time on such a regular basis. The two to four times per week figure quoted by Mr. Flint likely means that some schools are being locked down on a regular basis as a result of being located in high crime neighborhoods. During these lockdowns, learning is disrupted, activities are canceled and freedom placed on hold. Secondary students cannot switch classes, causing them to lose valuable instructional time in those classes. K-5 students are disrupted from their usual routines which no doubt creates anxiety and discipline problems for some.

During lockdowns, students cannot use the restroom or the drinking fountain or get food from their lockers or the cafeteria. Lockdowns have become so commonplace that LAUSD has equipped classroom with buckets so students can relieve themselves.

Yet when officials publicly declare that the lockdowns are just a precaution and do not represent an imminent threat, the message to parents and students is that they do not have to take them seriously. Districts like OUSD and LAUSD that lockdown their schools on a weekly “precautionary” basis run the risk of being ignored, like the little boy who cried wolf.

I am not suggesting that children’s safety be ignored. When OUSD locked down two schools Monday, police and suspects were exchanging gunfire. Under such circumstances it is prudent to secure school buildings. However, there was no reason to keep children locked down for as long as they did. And apparently the school district did not find Tuesday’s lockdown to be necessary at all.

It’s The Class
Of course there is also a large gorilla in the room that everyone is ignoring: the violence that has become so common in some communities. This is not a side issue that is only indirectly related to children’s academic success. Rather, much of the violence is directly related to or caused by poverty, which tends to be concentrated in certain communities, and which undermines students’ academic success, even when there is no violence involved. In other words, children who attend low income schools in neighborhoods with high rates of violence tend to be poor themselves, just like those who are committing the acts of violence. In some cases, they are the victims of violence outside of school, violence that does physical and/or emotional harm to them.

Having spent most of my career in low income schools, I have seen plenty of this, including one boy whose father murdered his mother in front of him, and another, whose father was gunned down on his doorstep. I’ve had dozens of students who came to class only because it was a parole requirement for violent crimes committed by the student. I’ve had several students who stopped coming to class because they were either tired of getting beaten up on the way to school or could not get to school without crossing through dangerous or rival gang territory.

Of course I could go on and on, as could many of you other teachers out there. But rather than ignoring this gorilla, because we think there is nothing we can do about it as teachers, we should be confronting it directly, as teachers, union members, and community members, and not only for our students’ safety, but because it is a necessary prerequisite for seeing any large scale improvement in the academic success of low income populations.

Ending poverty, closing the wealth gap, ensuring that all members of society have adequate housing, nutrition, health care, and the other necessities of life, not only will help reduce the violence that results in school lockdowns, it will improve the school readiness and success of our students.

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