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In the aftermath of a shooting at Frederick Douglass High School, teacher Daniel Parsons argues Baltimore is systematically failing its young people

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News, I’m Dharna Noor.

For decades, Baltimore City public school students have faced challenges. Schools are chronically underfunded, school buildings are often dilapidated, and many students’ communities have seen generations of disinvestment, and last year, USA Today named Baltimore the most dangerous city in America. That danger doesn’t always stay outside schools’ walls. On February 8 at Frederick Douglass, a historic high school in West Baltimore, staff member and coach Michael Marks was shot, allegedly by a student’s relative. In response, the Baltimore City School Board reversed a previous decision and backed a bill that would allow police to carry guns during school time.

And on Thursday, parents and civil rights advocates went to court to argue that Maryland had failed to provide Baltimore school students with the level of education funding required by the state’s constitution. They were armed with figures a new ACLU report. One point seven million students are in schools with police but no counselors. Three million students are in schools with police but no nurses. Six million are in schools with police but no school psychologists, and 10 million students are in schools with police but no social workers.

Our guest today is Daniel Parsons. He’s an English teacher at Frederick Douglass High School, and he wrote the powerful op-ed, “Our city is slaughtering black children” in the Baltimore Sun, in which he details the pain and adversity students deal with on a daily basis. He wrote, “Our schools are conducting the business of education in a war zone.” Thanks so much for being here today, Daniel.


DHARNA NOOR: So you begin your op-ed with a story that you say is not unusual. You said that you talked to a student who was asking you where he could get protection to protect himself from guns. Could you talk about that exchange?

DANIEL PARSONS: Yeah. So this actually happened during a time where more than one student was coming up to me, saying that they were scared just to be at home, to be anywhere in Baltimore. Multiple students were saying, “I think it’s my time.” We’d already lost three students connected with our school at that point of the year. And bigger than that, kids were losing other people in the city, their friends. All the kids follow the Instagram page, @murder_ink, which both keeps them informed, but also at the same time, sort of keeps them in a constant ambient awareness of violence. And one of the things I noticed was that especially around the winter, leading up to Christmas, so many kids were starting to get just absolutely terrified that they were going to be the one who was next. And it’s tough to have kids tell you that and to be very limited in what you can do to help keep them safe.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. And you talk about the overemphasis on standardized testing and the ways that kids are expected to perform, even when that’s the kind of conditions that they’re facing, the kind of fear that they’re living in, and then they’re expected to compete with peers in much more affluent, well-funded school districts. Could you talk about why that’s so unfair?

DANIEL PARSONS: Well, one of the things is that the stress compounds. If you have children that are worried because either a relative was shot or there’s a threat on their own life–I have students who miss school because their parents have to keep them home because if they travel between school, they might get killed. And this is a very real and legitimate fear. And so, I couldn’t even imagine taking a really rigorous test under those conditions. But then when you add the fact that some of these kids are taking up to twelve of these tests a year, if you count the fact they may have failed the test the year before, so then they have to take it each time, even though they don’t pass. So this could be taking a PARCC style test twice in a year. But then, you take the i-Ready assessments that are supposed to get them ready for–they’re essentially mini versions of the PARCC–

DHARNA NOOR: And the PARCC being a local standardized test that students all over the school district have to take.

DANIEL PARSONS: Exactly. So it’s a state graduation requirement in literacy and in math. And they also have an equivalent test called the MISA in science. So these are high stakes tests that often take multiple hours for the kids to do, and they’re being forced to take them without necessarily having a vehicle to offload all of this trauma that they’re experiencing.

DHARNA NOOR: Yeah. Talk about what kinds of vehicles kids could be given to sort of offload some of that trauma and have then someone to talk to. We just heard some of those ACLU numbers. Again, one point seven million students are in schools with police but no counselors. And in the piece you wrote, and this is a quote, “We are halfway through the school year, and already three students connected to Frederick Douglass have been killed. I taught two of them, one current, one alumnus. No grief counselors were sent. On February 8, a student apparently felt so affronted by an experience at the school that a relative tried to kill a staff member. Again, no grief counselors.” Talk about that and talk about the need for that kind of counseling.

DANIEL PARSONS: Yeah, so it’s something that we’ve kind of gotten used to in our school, of going through extreme, trauma-inducing events, and then having either no counselors or having limited access to them. So here’s a really good example. During the uprising, we had immediately, for the week following it, some Red Cross volunteers who were there. But in these situations, you know that they’re not going to be there long. So one of the key factors in addressing trauma is first being able to build relationships with kids, having them feel comfortable to talk to you. That doesn’t work if you just have people who swoop in whenever there’s an emergency and stick around for a little while. After the shooting, we did have some people who were available to kids to talk to them, but again, didn’t stick around very long.

It takes a much deeper and much more long-term investment to be able to make it productive. Kids need to feel like they know the person before they can start really talking. And one thing you’ll find is once those relationships are built, though, the kids are not just willing to talk, they need to talk. They really need it. And so, for teachers who are the frontlines, they’re the ones building the relationships, they become surrogate counselors and therapists. And we’re not always trained. There’s a level at which if you are attempting to be the best possible human you can be and you are listening and you care and you want to do your job. But again, that’s not always healthy for the teacher either, because we aren’t experts when it comes to trauma.

And so, and this is a thing that happens that is a danger for teachers, is that they have to authentically listen, but then they internalize, because they haven’t been trained what to do. How do you process what you then hear? So it’s a major issue. And again, like you said, the fact that we assume that every school must have a police officer, but we don’t assume that every school must have a counselor for the kids to talk to, is incredibly problematic. Because it’s like we don’t see how they’re connected, how a child who causes a threat to a learning environment may be doing that because they are reacting to some trauma that’s happened in their life.

DHARNA NOOR: And it’s not just staff, right? You also talk in the op-ed about the lack of resources that schools have, the lack of portable drinking water. You say that if there’s anything nice in classrooms, it’s probably something that a teacher bought themselves. Do you think that that can compound with that kind of community trauma and worsen the situation? Are those two things related too?

DANIEL PARSONS: Absolutely. If you think about a child who gets used to going to a school where seeing roaches or seeing mice is a usual thing, or having a rat run across the ceiling in the middle of a lesson, or you walk around the schools and you notice that things are being broken and not being fixed, you begin to sort of think that well, maybe something’s wrong with you if you ended up at a school like this. And we’ve known this for a long time. That’s what the Kenneth Clark doll studies were all about. This was a huge problem that we know how to remedy, we know how to address it. And the remedy is not that difficult. It doesn’t take any innovative solutions to adequately fund and take care of a building and provide interesting learning spaces.

What teachers have figured out is that when we provide them, it actually has an impact on instruction. Kids come into rooms, and if the teacher has taken time to make it a warm and inviting space where they feel safe, and clean it as best they can, and give them interesting learning tools for them to be able to use and interact with, they will rise to the occasion, you’ll have less issues of infractions, you’ll have to call less resource officers or less hall monitors to intervene, because kids respect the fact that you’ve taken that effort to give them a space they deserve.

DHARNA NOOR: And I can also imagine if you lessen that load of stress on teachers, teachers will be better equipped to help students learn. My mom’s a Baltimore City Public Schools teacher as well. And to see her spending her paychecks on buying tissues and like building blocks for her students, I can imagine that lifting that load and better funding and resourcing these kinds of schools would help students as well.

DANIEL PARSONS: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it’s probably difficult to calculate the amount that teachers are subsidizing education in a place like Baltimore. And I know it’s going on all over the country, but when we have severe deficits and cuts every year, the thing that we keep being told is that your per pupil funding is the highest in the state. And it’s problematic on several fronts. We know that the issues that we’re dealing with can sometimes be more expensive. If you have a population that is close to thirty percent special ed, then you need additional resources. If you have kids in your school who have had behavioral infractions at every other school that they’ve been to, well then you need some supports. And if you have kids that you know experience trauma or homelessness, or they’re in foster care, that gets a little bit more expensive.

But then on top of that, you have the teachers that are in the rooms that are buying the books, they’re buying the pens and pencils, they’re buying the paper, they’re buying their decorations. Sometimes they’re buying things like furniture to make the room look better, to make it seem more inviting. It gets expensive. But we also know what the kids deserve, and we’re not willing to sacrifice that. And if the system isn’t necessarily ponying up for what they ought to, somebody’s got to do it. The problem is there’s a lot of pressure that somebody’s got to do it, and the pressure lands squarely on the shoulders of the teacher.

DHARNA NOOR: And you’re right. If this, if all of this, if this violence, this underfunding, were happening in white suburban schools, a state of emergency would be well underway. Instead, we slash budgets and tell teachers to just make do. Could you talk about that?

DANIEL PARSONS: Yeah, I think it’s really, really important. And I think that if any part of the piece that’s gotten the most resistance, it’s probably that. It’s something not a lot of people want to hear. The fact that we have essentially apartheid schools in the city is commonly known, but it isn’t necessarily addressed. And the fact that we face budget cuts to our system, and we face suspicion about whether or not we need more money to fix these problems, I think those are all–the question of race is tied into. That the notion that our kids are somehow the problem itself is an issue, to me, of race. We over-criminalize black children in the city. They’re treated as a problem.

In fact, there’s a lot of people invested in the policing of black children, it’s a pretty big business. If you think about the way in which the industry in the city relies on essentially bullying kids, or treating kids like they are the problem in the city, in order to provide certain jobs. We could talk about policing, we could talk about anybody who works in behavioral health. All important, right, schooling as well, all important functions in the city. But a lot of it seems to be centered around the notion that the teenagers are a real problem in the city.

So we’re not capitalizing on the tremendous amount of energy that our kids have to actually make a contribution to the city. Instead, we’re treating them as an opposition, as a problem. They’re constantly being referenced as a problem. None of them see themselves that way, and you learn this as a teacher. They all actually want to contribute. We aren’t building systems that can tap into their energy. Instead, we’re pushing them to the margins, and we’re assuming that there is something functionally wrong with them. There’s something wrong with what we’re allowing to happen, especially in the spaces that we control.

DHARNA NOOR: And could you talk more about what could be done to sort of foster that drive to contribute and create that students have? I mean, you’ve said having grief counselors at school, better resourcing schools. But what are the kinds of programs you think could really build that urge in students?

DANIEL PARSONS: Yeah, so anything that gives a sense of empowerment and agency to kids, especially with the kids that I work with, which are teenagers, but I think you could start a lot earlier. Our students are completely used to being punished in punitive ways by systems of power from a very early age, and that weighs on them. What I see, and I’ve taught ninth all the way through eleventh, what I see when kids come into my classroom is a sense that the wonder has often been beat out of them by the oppressive structures that we’re building that are supposed to be educating kids. So ways to fix some of this is we need to actually give our students a way to actually shape their education and begin to start thinking less in terms of assessment, but in terms of the actual learning that’s going on.

Because what we know, when we spend millions of dollars to get an i-Ready assessment, or we spend it to get a new PARCC assessment, we already know ahead of time where the deficits exist. We’re not talking to teachers, we’re not going into the rooms and saying, “OK, so what are your deficits, what are they, what do your kids need?” And so, we’re pouring all of this money into assessment, and then we know ahead of time, we’ve telegraphed the fact that we expect them to fail. And what that builds is over years, kids just have been told that they fail, that all they do is fail, and they’ve lost the excitement. So there’s all kinds of ways to change this.

To me, the biggest though, is giving kids a real reason to enter the school building, and that might be getting a bit innovative with it, it may mean creating structures where kids can earn money towards college for showing up to school, even potentially earn a paycheck for showing up to school. If we have kids experiencing deep and serious poverty, that would make a difference, and then suddenly the students are working with us and working towards the goal. They’re not seen as opponents anymore, they’re contributors.

DHARNA NOOR: You end your op-ed by recounting lessons learned from the Baltimore uprising in 2015, after Freddie Gray was killed in police custody. You taught at Douglass then too. Could you talk about what’s changed since then, and what lessons, if any, Baltimore has learned, Baltimore Public Schools have learned, teachers have taken away?

DANIEL PARSONS: Yeah, that’s a really good question. The problem when it comes to what’s changed is I’m not sure things have gotten better. And so we’ve been through several principals. That year we had two, two principals that year. And every time we lose a principal, it’s a year that we know that it’s going to be difficult for the kids in terms of incidents that occur at the school. Usually something traumatic occurs in the first year of a new principal, just because it’s hard, it’s a difficult adjustment. But more than that, you would think that that would have been enough to say, well wait a minute, let’s do a needs assessment. What do our kids really need? How can the chronic and systemic traumas that we know exist in the neighborhood, how can they affect the learning environments in our school?

If you look at the neighborhoods that our schools service, they’ve got hardships index that is far beyond the city average, which is already high. And we know that by any health measure, the neighborhoods that my students are coming from significantly outpace even the city. The violent homicide rates usually double. Right. The lead paint violation rate is five times in some of the neighborhoods. It’s at least three times, and the rat complaints is five times. So our kids are coming from environments that create extreme stress. And we should have known that. We knew that then, we talked about it then, but we have done very little. In fact, in places like my school, we’ve seen staffing cuts pretty much every year. The mission hasn’t gotten easier, but our ability to successfully address the mission has gotten weaker I think.

DHARNA NOOR: Sometimes, when you speak to people about the chronic underfunding of schools, the under-resourcing of schools, the kinds of violence that kids face in school, some people look at that and say it’s because parents aren’t getting involved or because communities aren’t getting involved in the school system. What do you think when you hear people say things like that?

DANIEL PARSONS: Yeah, that’s a very popular argument. And as a teacher, I’ve heard so much I just dismiss it when I hear it, because first, it’s not accurate. I know a lot of teachers in Baltimore City will complain about parents not necessarily showing up at the parent teacher conferences and stuff like that, but it’s an oversimplification. First off, if you’re reaching out to parents, you’re going to find that a lot of parents are really hungry to work with the schools. But at the same time, a lot of the parents of my kids have two jobs, they have to take multiple buses between those jobs. So like the students, they’re under similarly stressed situations. And a lot of parents, again, they’ll stay as involved as they possibly can. But if we’re talking about poverty, we’re talking about people who may not necessarily have the luxury of showing up whenever a student needs it, or being at the school and advocating for the things that they know that they want.

So again, the onus though, to me, is on the school to build those structures. And that, again, understanding that we are working with a population that sometimes does experience a tremendous amount of economic stress, it may cost a little bit more. You may need to provide food when you have an event at the school. You may need to make sure that you incentivize it in ways that matter. But to me, starting to understand that schools can, in fact, anchor communities, I think is important. We tend to isolate the two, because we don’t want to admit that what goes on in the community can impact the school. We want to think that the school is in its own hermetic bubble, and as long as you’ve got superstar teachers in there and an amazing administrator, you’re just rocking and your data is going to look great.

But in reality, the school is the community. The people that are in your school are the community, so blending the distinction between school and community might help. For example, if we had a health clinic in our school that was open to parents, guaranteed we would have a lot more parental involvement, because that would be one place they wouldn’t have to stop in all the busy things that they’ve got to accomplish.

DHARNA NOOR: I know the trauma is still fresh and it’s still soon to be talking about this, but you said that there are lessons that Baltimore and that the school system could have learned from the Baltimore uprising and from Freddie Gray’s death in police custody that were not learned. If there is one thing that Douglass or that Baltimore City Public Schools could take away from the death of the gentleman last month, could you say what kinds of lessons that would be? Like what should that propel the schools system and schools to do?

DANIEL PARSONS: Right. To me, the biggest piece, I think a lot of people would say that more trauma counselors wouldn’t have prevented this. Or the common argument that I’ve been hearing a lot is that only a person with a gun would have stopped this from happening. The fact of the matter is, by the own admission of the officers who were there, we apparently had multiple armed officers for a meeting there, and again, they didn’t necessarily stop a person from getting shot. And the way I understand the story is that the person had to interact with the shooter. I was locked down in my classroom so I don’t know. So that would have happened with or without guns, so I don’t think guns would have been the end all, be all solution to the problem.

But if this was an incident that came from a perceived slight, the ability to have interventionists, people who do mediation, who do violence reduction, to have a really strong and active trauma intervention team, it might have stopped this. And it certainly would be able to give students a way to settle disputes before they could escalate to this. But I mean, I don’t think that there’s one easy solution. It’s going to be some really difficult work to consider. But a lot of our students feel deeply that the society that they inhabit disrespects them so much, that simple slights, anything that is a challenge to their sense of pride, which can often be damaged by the systems that we create, needs to be addressed. So providing alternatives for dealing with that is something that is the responsibility of the school.

That is what education is all about, teaching kids to be able to distinguish between what is an important thing and what is not an important thing to fight about. Again, that to me is as important as teaching an English standard. And I love English, I have a master’s degree in English, I want to teach the English standards as much as I possibly can. But we’re shirking our responsibilities if we aren’t addressing that first.

DHARNA NOOR: All right. Daniel Parsons is an English teacher at Frederick Douglass High School. He just wrote the powerful op-ed, “Our city is slaughtering black children.” Thank you so much for being here in the studio today.

DANIEL PARSONS: Thank you for having me.

DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.