Student activists talk a good game against school violence. But what are they saying?
Monday, I went looking for some good old-fashioned righteous anger at Philadelphia School District headquarters. It was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a celebration of peaceful activism, and hundreds of students were gathering to rally against school violence. Everyday low-level warfare in Philly schools goes mostly ignored, but recent assaults on Asian students at South Philadelphia High School put a spotlight on the problem that Superintendent Arlene Ackerman was finding hard to avoid. A little cage-rattling seemed in order.
Instead, I discovered something frustrating and disconcerting: We live in a weird, media-driven age in which even junior-high school students will spin you, stay relentlessly on-message and repeat meaningless slogans until your head swims in a haze of doublespeak. And they do it quite well.
The trouble started when I arrived early at the rally, led by the Philadelphia Student Union. I walked straight to the man apparently in charge—an adult holding a bullhorn. He steered me instead to PSU member Shania Morris, a pert, professional and prepped eighth-grader at Huey Elementary School in West Philadelphia. The rally, she told me, would launch a campaign against “all forms of school violence” and “end the school-to-prison pipeline.”
I asked how school violence affects her and the students she knows. And that’s when the interview turned slippery. Morris turned out to be the equal of White House spokesman Robert Gibbs in sidestepping questions she didn’t want to answer. Underfunding and unequal schools, she told me, are also forms of school violence. I was growing leery. And I asked: Is actual, physical violence a problem in school?
“At Student Union, we believe that no student should be criminalized,” she said. “So...we believe that no student should be criminalized. We should come together.”
In the span of three quick minutes, Morris would talk about ending the school-to-prison pipeline three times and four times assert that no student should be criminalized. What she wouldn’t do, though, is tell me what actual violence looks like in Philly schools.
Morris shot me a look. “I don’t think that’s really the purpose of what we’re out here for today,” she said.
This wasn’t a case of first-time media jitters. Morris was delivering PSU’s message, buzzwords—and only buzzwords—and all. The bullhorn guy soon steered me to Zakia Royster, a PSU activist who attends Sayre High School. She told me the exact same thing, in nearly the exact same words as Morris: The rally was aimed at “all forms of school violence” and that underfunded and unequal schools are also a form of violence. I asked her the same question: How much do students have to deal with physical violence in their schools?
And I got the same result.
“Best I know, no student should be criminalized when it comes to that type of violence,” Royster told me, and added: “We need to broaden our look at what violence is.” Try as I might, Royster wouldn’t budge from the talking points.
Once the rally started, I had a brief moment of hope that someone would finally tell us what the problem looked like. A young lady took the microphone and implored her fellow students to stand against violence. “No student should be afraid to go to school!” she cried. “They should all feel safe in every school no matter what school you go to!”
But then: “Violence isn’t just physical violence,” she said. “Underfunding our schools, that’s a form of violence.”
You get the idea. PSU’s members defined the problem of “violence” broadly while refusing to provide any supporting details that might help anybody identify or solve the issues. And in so doing, they inadvertently parodied the worst excesses of Philly’s protest culture.
Most likely, it’s not the kids’ fault. The adults who help PSU’s teens “lead” a campaign against school violence have clearly spread the creepy institutionalization of progressive grassroots activism into the lives of kids, teaching them to very effectively parrot the parlance of protest without conveying substance. And that’s a real problem: As long as those students speak in meaningless abstractions instead of talking about what violence really looks like and how it affects them—and in avoiding those details, echoing the city’s deadly “don’t snitch” culture—it’ll be easy for school officials to ignore the problem and difficult for the media to force it into view.
In a recent edition of PSU’s newsletter, Zakia Royster wrote about how her school’s officials mishandled a riot, and detailed the obstacles to anti-violence activism there. For whatever reason, she wouldn’t talk about stuff like that on Monday. She’d only speak in generalities.
“Nobody’s listening to the students at all,” Royster told me. “I think that one of the main solutions would be to listen to the students.”
Maybe. But I tried listening to the students. They weren’t saying anything. Meanwhile, real violence continues in the city’s schools. ■
Racial tensions have been escalating at South Philadelphia High School, and peaked when 30 Asian students were the target of a violent attack. But one group of diverse students have resisted the divisive racial tensions by breakdancing.
Election Day 2014: Tues., Nov. 4