Watching “When They See Us” With Students: A teacher reflecting on race, privilege, and why police are in our schools

After final exams were finished a few weeks ago, I asked my juniors what we should watch. They unanimously said “When They See Us”. I cringed, but not because I had any doubts about the series. I had been captivated and enraged by it the week earlier while watching it at home. I cringed because I thought I knew how hard it would be to watch it with my Black students. 

When They See Us sees the Central Park Five give false confessions under interrogation (Image: NETFLIX)

In this class, we had spent extensive time learning about the greatness of Africa and life pre-imperialization, to reaffirm strong identities. We spent weeks examining institutionalized racism, Chicago police torture, educational inequalities and city policies. The students were ready to watch the series; they had class context and maturity, plus the life experience of being Black teens in America.  As a teacher though, I was ready for summer vacation. I was ready to be done teaching.

Watching this series in the comfort of my own home had been very difficult. It made me think of every student I’d ever taught who had been caught up with the police, it made me think of all the survivors of Chicago police torture. It made me picture my current students in the situation of Raymond, Kevin, Antron, Yusef, and Kharey, the wrongly accused children featured in this series. 

Starting this series with my students would require that I still teach, even after grades were done. Just a few minutes into the first episode I stopped it and asked my students what they should do if the police ever try to question them. After their first instincts were only following in the footsteps of any young kid, claiming they’d ask for their parent, I showed them this tweet and we discussed it:

Tweet from @prisonculture

Around the same time, the school that I work at had staff from members from First Legal Aid come and speak to our students about their rights with police. This organization broke down what rights the students had and gave them instructions on how to interact with police in multiple scenarios.

Watching the police interrogate, harass, threaten, and abuse the innocent kids and parents in “When They See Us” not only made past teaching experiences come back to me, but it also made past personal experiences come back too. It made me think about my own police run in and privilege. When I was seventeen, I was drinking with my friends at a party. We ran out of alcohol and needed more so we made the drunken poor choice of breaking into a nearby building that we knew had some in it.  In the morning, we realized the stupid mistake we had made. We all quickly decided we would not discuss what happened with anyone, including to deny everything if asked about it, and we went home. Later that morning, I got a call from the police saying they were coming to my house. I panicked and didn’t move for some time. Then as the police car was pulling into my driveway I told my parents that the police were coming over because of a break in that happened near the party the night before, but assured them that I had nothing to do with it. My college educated parents, caught off guard by the police showing up, let the police come into the house and ask me questions, without ever once considering their options to 1. Not let the police in or 2. Tell me not to answer any questions or 3. Make sure that I didn’t say a thing without a lawyer. 

I also was naïve enough to figure that I could lie to my parents and also lie to the police and not get caught. I told my parents that I had no idea about the break in, that the police were asking me about. The cop then proceeded to sit at our table and ask me questions about the break in. I told him three times that I had no idea about the break in.  After the third time of me telling him the fake story he looked at me and said, “Some of your friends already told me what happened so if you don’t tell me the real story of what happened then I am taking you down to the station .” Not wanting to be taken from my house and believing that one of my other friends had already told him what happened, I told him the truth. He took down my testimony and thankfully, due to my privileges as a white teen, he let me stay at my house with my parents while they went to talk to the other kids who were involved.

 The owners of the building that we broke into decided not to press charges against us if we apologized and agreed to do volunteer work for them. I now know that the decision not to press charges were made because we were white and thought to be “good kids” who made a poor choice, (which just means white). But if they would’ve pressed charges I would’ve been charged with a felony.

Raymond, Kevin, Antron, Yusef, and Kharey did not get the privileges I was born in to. I committed the crime and got away with it, they didn’t even commit a crime and got punished. My students do not get those privileges. Yet, I and every white person does.

All of this led me to my next thought, if there are so many issues with police and we have to educate our youth on their rights with police, why do we let police in our schools?

In Chicago, where there have been far too many police murders, our students are also exposed to police in their schools. A thorough report published in 2017 titled “Handcuffs in Hallways-The State of Policing in Chicago Public Schools” states, “Research shows that the mere presence of police officers in school increases the likelihood that a student will be referred to law enforcement for adolescent behavior. School-based arrests, which fall more harshly on students of color, put students in direct contact with the justice system. Poor policing within schools therefore puts students on the fast track to the school-to-prison pipeline…These children regularly interact with police officers during the school day, putting them in greater risk of being pulled into the criminal justice system. Students report being stopped, searched, and even arrested and processed on campus. Daily interactions with police influence students’ perceptions of their own safety and increase their level of stress, especially among Black and Latino students. Therefore, impairing their ability to learn and develop. There are varied issues related to police officers assigned to CPS. Police assigned to CPS lack proper training…”

Just recently it was reported that the police in schools are not getting any better either. “CPD’s current lack of guidance and structure for [student resource officers] amplifies community concerns and underscores the high probability that students are unnecessarily becoming involved in the criminal justice system, despite the availability of alternatives,”

We should have an abundance of counselors in schools not police.

As Alicia Garza says, “There has to be a readjustment of resources that is being diverted to police and policing as opposed to community health services, and there certainly has to be control over the police by the communities that they are supposed to protect and serve.”

I wish that in July my teacher brain wasn’t still thinking about these topics. I wish during the school year that  I didn’t have to teach about difficult topics such as forced false confessions like in the case of the Central Park 5 or here in Chicago with the over 100 Black residents forced into false confessions, but unfortunately our country is founded on institutionalized racism. It is imperative as educators that even though a topic is difficult to teach, we still must teach it. Teaching Tolerance calls this “Teaching Hard History”. 

As a teacher and resident of Chicago  I know there are actions our city can do to help prevent institutionalized racism from continuously rearing its head. 

One of the easiest ways to start this process is to take the police out school, to help prevent situations where students are traumatized in anyway by the police.

To view this post on ChicagoNow click here.

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