“Problem Children”: Disrupting Toxic Narratives about Black Students

WLP students present on Denim Day and domestic violence prevention at Gardena HS, 2017

By Sikivu Hutchinson

Imagine being a Black eight, nine or ten year old and being herded into a “special” elementary school assembly that only Black students at your campus are required to attend. Imagine hearing “trusted” adults at the assembly effectively label you a “problem” and declare that your “bad” academic “choices” would lead to either incarceration or death from gun violence. This scenario occurred recently at Bunnell Elementary in Flagler County Florida. African American fourth and fifth graders (irrespective of their actual academic performance levels or test scores) were forced to attend a segregated assembly at a school where they were a small percentage of the population. The assembly was not authorized by the school district and elicited outrage from parents and caregivers of the student attendees. What makes the incident even more disturbingly complex is that the assembly’s lead teacher-presenter was an African American male. Ironically, this particular teacher had implemented a mentoring program for struggling Black students at the school. Nonetheless, his Power Point presentation to the students trotted out the toxic narrative that Black students were deficit laden and irresponsible. After an investigation by Flager’s school district, the teacher, and the school’s white principal (who approved the assembly and the PowerPoint, which was rife with grammatical errors), resigned.

Bunnell ES Power Point presentation

It is especially tragic that this incident occurred in Florida, which has become the epicenter of white supremacist assaults on culturally responsive K-12 education due to the virulent neo-Confederate policies and propaganda of Governor Ron DeSantis. Yet, this horrific incident is also a reflection of the pro forma academic policing Black students experience. Nationwide, Black preschoolers are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school. Black queer students and Black students with disabilities are also disproportionately targeted for harsh discipline. In hypersegregated districts, Black “underperformance” is frequently cited as “dragging down” or undermining the performance metrics of K-12 schools.

The white supremacist backlash against African American studies and multicultural education has taken a deep toll on the self-esteem and wellbeing of Black students. In hostile climates where their very right to exist is challenged, Black students must navigate low expectations from teachers and administrators of all ethnicities, as well as anti-Blackness from white and non-Black students of color (most egregiously demonstrated by non-Black students’ pervasive use of the N-word, as well as the demonization of Black girls as hypersexual and Black youth as criminal). These conditions are exacerbated by the fact that the majority of K-12 instructors are white women. Numerous studies have shown that one of the most important factors in Black students’ success is sustained contact with a caring Black teacher or mentor. Yet, pre-pandemic and pandemic era disparities have led to the decline of Black teacher representation in public schools. In many instances, Black students and teachers find that they have little social-emotional protection or workplace security in large school districts. In addition to the escalation of anti-Black backlash in K-12 curricula, Black teachers must navigate minimal to no support from school administrators, district officials, and community members.

It is for this reason that the LAUSD’s Black Student Achievement Plan (BSAP) initiative is critically important. BSAP is a product of 2020 coalition organizing led by groups such as Students Deserve, Black Lives Matter L.A. and Reclaim Our Schools to reallocate school police funds to Black student-focused academic and mental health resources. The BSAP initiative provides academic support, counseling, and cultural enrichment programs to Black students at designated LAUSD campuses.

A recent USC/Rand corporation evaluation of BSAP based on fifteen schools bears out the benefits of the initiative. School stakeholder interviewees expressed appreciation for BSAP’s promotion of culturally responsive books and curricular materials in literature courses. Some students and parents reported higher academic achievement and a greater sense of well being and belonging at their campuses. Downsides to the rollout of the initiative included staff that had not been adequately trained about the objectives of BSAP, inconsistent incorporation of BSAP principles into culturally responsive math instruction, and the district’s failure to address intersectional Black identities in its programming and outreach.

Given the unrelenting assaults on Black youth in K-12 schools, access to Black affirming enrichment programs and culturally competent trauma-informed care should be mandatory on school campuses. Skyrocketing rates of suicide for Black middle school girls and Black LGBTQ+ youth underscore how grave the mental health crisis is for our most vulnerable students. Traumatizing assemblies such as that which occurred at Flagler will only proliferate if Black parents and caregivers aren’t vigilant about reinforcing the connection between social-emotional health and academic performance.