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Empowering Underserved Communities for Violence Prevention: Creating a Culture of Safety in Our Schools

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Empowering Underserved Communities for Violence Prevention: Creating a Culture of Safety in Our Schools

In 1999, I left Queens to follow my dream to come teach high school in an underserved community in the #Bronx. My #Haitian grandmother had instilled in me this idea that education was the remedy to all societal ills, including the abuse and the exploitation of poor children. For those of us who dream of teaching from a young age, there is this sense that with our intellect and communication skills, we can indeed save the world.

After a month on the job and going home every day in tears because my students would not allow me to speak a word or teach a lesson, it dawned on me that there is no such thing as saving the world or saving people. People and the world have to save themselves. If I were going to be an effective teacher, my students needed to want to learn. They needed to cultivate the discipline to learn. They needed to take responsibility for their own learning and academic achievements.

What was true in my high school classroom over twenty years ago is true today and has always been true in terms of creating safe schools and safe communities. In my district and in the educational system as a whole, when we talk about what schools are doing to keep students safe and prevent parents from exacerbating unsafe situations – we talk a lot about safety agents, the deans, the police, the justice system – all so punitive, but we talk very little about creating spaces, opportunities, structures, and systems by which parents, students and communities can participate in and uphold safety initiatives.

I can hear my opponents already: “but we also talk about and do restorative circles for our students.” Yes, I know. But restorative circles by themselves and with just our students are not going to solve a problem that has deep historical and psycho-socio-politico-economic implications. It is important that New York City Public Schools personnel remember that they are guests in our communities, as most of them work in our communities, but don’t actually live in our communities. It is important and helpful to remember that the violence and unsafe conditions begin with the communities and the homes because of various historical and psycho-socio-politico-economic issues. Hence, the safety solutions have to address and attempt to solve many of those issues that are at the base of the uptick of the violence we are seeing. And we have to invite people to participate in their own healing and the healing of their schools and communities.

We know that safety, first and foremost, is a state of mind and a state of being that is fostered by a series of factors – and that cannot be reduced to just the police and safety agents keeping children and staff safe. It cannot be reduced to just punishing the ones who make us feel unsafe or giving a safety transfer to another school to the students who feel unsafe.

We need to start talking about the culture of safety, and we need to broaden the definition of violence. Violence begets violence. By the time we get to verbal or physical altercations, by the time we get to bullying and harassment, by the time we get to rape, assault, homicide and suicide – we have missed all the brutality and cruelty that will become the foundation of all the types of violence aforementioned.

Let us be crystal clear. We see the kind of physical violence in impoverished, underserved BIPOC urban areas like the Bronx because we live in communities that are fraught with unabated violence, brutality and cruelty of all sorts – just by the very nature of these communities. Abject poverty is a form of violence. High unemployment is a form of violence. Lack of affordable housing is a form of violence. Lack of heat in the winter is a form of violence. Food insecurity is a form of violence. Lack of health care and lack of mental health support are a form of violence. Underperforming schools are a form of violence. The list goes on and on. In a nutshell, disinvestments in communities are a form of violence. Paternalism and dismissiveness are a form of violence. Are we then surprised that these types of brutality and cruelty transform into verbal, emotional and physical violence and bullying of all sorts?

Are we then surprised that we are seeing an uptick in violence in our schools and communities after the pandemic, during which so many issues that plague underserved communities were exacerbated? Please bear with me as I continue to draw parallels between education and safety, as I try to illustrate the connection and the approach for which I am advocating.  In my classroom, I needed to understand from where that sense of extreme rebellion and that resistance to education came. The philosophies and stages of development described by the likes of Piaget, Jung, Maslow and even Freud were only partially explaining to me what was going on with these young people. At the time, very little of what I was learning about educating BIPOC children in underserved communities had anything to do with the conditions in which these children were growing up. I am eternally grateful to my nerdy, late father, thrice a Doctor of Philosophy in Political Science, Anthropology and Juridical Sociology who could explain to me in detail the phenomenon I was witnessing in my classroom. The City and the State of New York have hundreds if not thousands of professionals that they can call upon to explain to educators and citizens the roots of the violence we are seeing and what the solutions can entail.

Calling upon these professionals can help us discover quickly what I had to discover on my own in my classroom with the help of my late father. We need to construct a philosophy of safety (as I had to construct a philosophy of education) that take into consideration the history and the psycho-socio-politico-economic conditions that have shaped the violence in our schools and communities, the same way that I had to take these things into consideration to understand my students’ views of how useless/useful education was and the overwhelming resistance to it.

Subsequent to my arrival at understanding, I wasn’t shy about explaining to my students the forces that governed their lives, and the decisions that they were making that really were not their decisions at all. I explained that there was a difference between conditioning and active and free decision-making. When it comes to safety in our schools and communities, we need to do the work of helping our students, parents, our communities and #NYCPS personnel that the violence is not happening in a vacuum; that it has a source; that it is indeed partly conditioned; that we have choices in terms of interrupting and discontinuing the cycle.

As a teacher, it was in this context that I discovered I needed to become a facilitator, the guardian of an environment that would allow students to take ownership of their education, become self-reliant and self-directed learners – before these notions were popularized in education and reached my ears. I am suggesting to the powers that be, that if we are serious about safer schools and safer communities that we develop an approach that allows students, parents and community to take ownership of their safety and become self/community-reliant and self/community-directed safety agents.

In my #classroom, I was able to create a system that ran itself because I understood that I should never have been the principal actor in that classroom. I understood that I needed to relinquish control and that if I wanted my students to learn: teaching and learning could never revolve around me. I understood that my job needed to be the creation and the guardianship of that safe environment in which my students could and would strive. My principal, at the time, was often shocked that I could stand outside of my classroom for an extended period of time, discussing with her, with other students without my class missing a beat in the lesson that they had prepared. The principal that later replaced her thought I had studied education at Harvard, only to discover that she and I had the same alma mater: The City College of New York, dubbed then The Harvard of the Proletariat. My students for the most part were disciplined, eager, industrious, and they had created a community of support with one another.

I submit that the NYCPS bureaucracy and #NYC policing need to shift to allow this type of safety ownership-leadership culture to take hold in our schools and communities in order to enable real collaborative work on safety and many other areas of concern among education stakeholders, especially parents, students and community members and leaders. For the safety plan for schools, it is important for all stakeholders to be surveyed and have input on what the solutions should be through deep inquiry and profound conversations about causes, effects, and the role one can play to not only interrupt the cycle of violence, but to replace it with the culture of safety.

The data on violence occurring in the schools and in surrounding neighborhoods are to be shared with the community so that targeted safety plans can be constructed and targeted actions taken. Solutions ought to be hyper-localized and unique to each school and neighborhood. In my district, we could have gotten an early start on a safety plan and project, but district personnel refused to share any data and refused to have any productive conversations about trends and the types of violence that we are seeing in our district, so we could plan and take actions accordingly. Obviously, a non-superficial safety plan from parent leaders begins with transparency and genuine partnership with district leaders.

For any parent/community safety plan to be effective, parents, communities and all stakeholders have to be empowered. Parent Associations, Parent/Teacher Associations (PA/PTAs), Presidents’ Councils must become non-profits in order to access the monies that are being provided by the Federal Government and the Department of Justice to do this work inside of the schools and the surrounding neighborhoods. This would also allow the PAs, PTAs and Presidents’ Councils to collaborate with and/or hire other Community Based organizations (CBOs) and qualified individuals to help do the work.

This will also help professionalize parent leadership organizations in the NYCPS. It will force parents and parent leaders to learn much more about legislations, regulations and policies within the educational system, but also within the legal and financial systems. This will help them become true partners to the NYCPS by helping to solve problems in tangible ways and by helping to raise funds for much needed initiatives at the school, district, central and communal levels. We know that there is always a correlation between poverty/unemployment and violence. Making sure every PA/PTA and Presidents’ Council is a non-profit will help open job training and job opportunities within the local communities around the schools and it will help the people on the ground become change agents. Creating jobs for our parents and in our communities is a good thing. At the New York City Coalition for Educating Families Together, we have concluded that one of the reasons we see normal disagreements/arguments/altercations among children turn into full blown family/gang feuds is that too many of these adults are not working and have too much time on their hands. Thus, they end up taking up space where it would have been the place of school officials to help resolve those conflicts amongst students.

For this to work, it means that Superintendents and Principals have to allow parents and community to partially assume the responsibility for the safety of their kids within the school community and community at large through the safety infrastructure that parents, community and community partners will be conceptualizing, implementing and perfecting over time. We really need to find community solutions that are sustainable and far reaching. That can only happen if the initiatives are community led and if schools and communities are accountable to one another.

I write my next paragraphs very carefully because I know that Mayor Adams and Chancellor Banks do ask for community input when it comes to education and safety. My comments are a critique of a system that they have inherited and cannot eradicate quickly enough. But eradicate, they must!!! Historically, we had set up a system that gives the illusion that the operators, the gatekeepers, the institutions and the agencies have all the answers. It was set up in such a way that only the Mayor, the Chancellor, the superintendents, the principals, the teachers, the safety agents – everyone – but the students and the parents – has answers or partial answers. This paternalism is rooted in our history of colonialism, slavery and indentured service. As a public-school system, we have literally imposed and interposed ourselves, interfering with our parents’, students’ and communities’ abilities to become independent and interdependent agents, capable of assuming their own destinies and the destinies of their communities.

At the beginning of this essay/op-ed, I told my story as a teacher of how I managed to turn many students who were considered future jailbirds and rejects of society into aspiring leaders and well-adjusted adults, because there is something very dangerous that we do in the New York City Public Schools and in underserved, impoverished BIPOC communities. We operate as saviors. When it comes to this issue of violence and of safety, there is no one savior. There cannot be – not when one thinks of all the things and people that collude to create and contribute to unsafe environments.

We operate with a kind of paternalism that is nauseating and that actually cripples and silences the inventiveness of students, teachers, principals and superintendents. Students and communities that are lagging behind do not need people to be pseudo problem-solvers for them. They need to be empowered. They need the proper tools and resources. And most importantly, they need the freedom and the time to explore, discover, conceptualize, strategize, implement and reassess according to needs and outcomes. And they need to be accountable to themselves and their communities/schools.

To be clear, this paternalism permeates all of our government agencies in underserved communities and it needs to stop. It is a system and an attitude of oppression that annihilates all creativity, ingenuity, leadership, collaboration and the type of synergy that can foster growth and development in impoverished BIPOC communities not only when it comes to education, safe schools and safer communities, but in everything. What we need in impoverished BIPOC communities is an education system and governmental systems and agencies that do not tolerate educators, education leaders and other government officials/workers who oppose collaboration and synergy in order to sustain the status quo, while asphyxiating all efforts that can support movement in the right direction. The truth is all things are interconnected and inextricably intersect. Piecemeal solutions are not effective, which is why we find ourselves unable to solve problems once and for all, and why we have to refight battles we thought we had already won. Sustainable solutions require that problems are solved at the roots. This is true when it comes to the problems we face both in regards to education and safety issues.

I will not deny the need to educate and professionalize the parent leadership spaces because denying that reality is also harmful to the system. From the point of view of NYCPS personnel, I understand that it is easier to dismiss parents than it is to work with them when parents may not truly understand how the system functions. But that is exactly the urge that NYCPS personnel must resist, because it is part of that very paternalism, authoritarianism, overprotectiveness of the system and control that school and school district officials must relinquish if we want to move forward.

It is equivalent to a parent doing a child’s homework. That would not help the child learn and become college and career ready. It is the same in the construction of this culture of safety that we so badly need in our schools and communities. Not allowing education stakeholders and community stakeholders like parents to learn and to fly of their own wings prevents them form being full partners. That is the one thing that Former Chancellor Carranza said that is still true today. Knowledgeable and informed parents are better partners in this work of improving our schools and communities to support our schools, when it comes to both academic performance and creating the culture of safety. Perhaps it is time to think about creating parent leadership training organizations similar to political training organizations like Emerge, Ready to Run and 21 in 21to really train parents before they run for PAs/PTAs, CECs, etc. to help to eradicate this repugnant dismissiveness we see of parent leaders and the input that they can have in order to move our schools and communities forward.

For, let us be clear! This systemic arrogance, this systemic paternalism does not benefit the schools, the students, the parents nor the communities in which the schools operate. The stats speak for themselves. No need to reiterate them. But it does beg the question that if schools are not agents of social change for impoverished BIPOC communities, and a source of empowerment for impoverished BIPOC students, what is their purpose? Is it to in fact perpetuate the status quo? If that is NOT the case, it is best for the New York City Public Schools to discontinue the narrative at the school and district levels that IT alone, without the community, can keep our students and staff safe.


Farah Despeignes,
Soon to be a Former Parent Leader
Education and Violence Prevention Advocate

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