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The Symptom is Not the Problem

Posted by Annie Gonzalez Milliken // April 28th 2015 // Issues and Trends, Social Justice, Stories and Voices // no comments

It is Overtime to Shift the Paradigm

An acquaintance of mine named Molli King is a teacher and yesterday she posted an essay she wrote for an education blog about a school in New York City called Success Academy that had recently been profiled in the New York Times. In her essay she told a story, one that I remember her sharing in person when she still worked at Success Academy, and this story has been rattling around in my brain today.

The story is found in her blogpost and I will also recount it here in Ms. King’s words:

But of all of the awful stories from my time at Success, none will top the story of one of my little boys in first grade. He was new to Success, having left some other charter school for unclear reasons, and at first presented as a bright, sweet boy. But sometime in the winter, after months of seeming more and more defeated by a school environment that squashed his fiery spirit, he grew anxious and fidgety. These symptoms quickly escalated into weekly full-blown crisis situations in which he would suddenly start screaming and try to knock down every piece of furniture in our classroom. It was deeply troubling for the other students as well myself because it was clear that something very serious was going on in his little mind, and yet all our administrators seemed concerned about was getting his behavior under control. Their solution was to have our school security officer, a large man dressed in uniform, come upstairs and drag him out of our room. Knowing what I do now about childhood trauma, I understand the extent of the damage that must have done to him, as well as to all the other children in our class. At the end of the year it was not-so-subtly suggested to his family that this might not be the right place for him, and he moved on to to his third charter school in as many years.

Students engaged in restorative justice. Photo from thecra.net

Students engaged in restorative justice. Photo from thecra.net

This little boy was exhibiting symptoms, as Ms. King so aptly put it.  Symptoms that were likely at least partially caused by the systems in place at Success Academy, systems that caused misery for teachers and students alike.  These symptoms manifested in disruption, scary intense physical disruption.  But rather than explore the causes behind the symptoms, the administrators chose to view the person manifesting the symptoms as the problem, to remove him forcibly, to ultimately send him away.

Now I don’t know much about schools and I’m not an educator.  But I have a friend named Tom Zolot who also works with schools through a restorative justice organization in New Orleans called The Center for Restorative Approaches.  I remember him telling me about the work his organization does in schools, how they set up crisis intervention and strive to handle behavioral issues through talking openly about the problem, naming the harm done, having those who were harmed put forward what they need to heal, and then having those who did harm negotiate a way to repair the harm.  He also said that their work is much more effective when they do preventative work, when they train students and teachers in restorative justice techniques and get the entire system of a school invested in relating in a new paradigm.  According to his stories these paradigm shifts work wonders.  This approach does not treat people exhibiting symptoms like problems.  It treats people like people and problems like problems and it requires a total re-thinking of how we do school.

Screen shot of live news report from WBAL-TV on April 27th.

Screen shot of live news report from WBAL-TV Baltimore on April 27th.

Yesterday as I scrolled through the news, I saw the symptoms of racism, violence, economic inequality and classism being manifested by people in Baltimore.  And I saw that many people want to treat the folks exhibiting the symptoms like they are the problem.  Want to call in forces to remove them, send them away, control them with further violence and incarceration.  I saw that many other people do realize that people are people and that problems – problems like desperate poverty and hopelessness, problems like  excessive use of force by police against black people – are problems.  In an article on ThinkProgress, clergy are quoted as saying “there has been a State of Emergency way before tonight in Baltimore City, an emergency in poverty, lack of jobs [and] disenfranchisement from the political process.”

There has been a state of emergency in Baltimore, in Ferguson, in Tulsa, in New York City, in Chicago, in Detroit, in the United States of America.  There has been a state of emergency since this nation was founded upon racism, genocide and slavery.  A destructive uprising by an oppressed people is not the same as a hurting little boy throwing a tantrum.  Our cities are not schools, our nation is not an education system.  And yet, I find the experiences of my friends in the education system to be enlightening as I consider the events in Baltimore since the death of Freddie Gray.  We can call in the big man in a uniform to drag a child away and we can call in the National Guard, but we can also use restorative justice both as a reaction to crises and as a way to re-think our systems completely.

Protestors in Baltimore, Maryland on April 26th. Photo from fusion.net

Protestors in Baltimore, Maryland on April 26th. Photo from fusion.net

Re-thinking our racist, capitalist, violent systems, the ones that cause such suffering in Baltimore, is an enormous task.  And putting new systems in place is even bigger still.  I do not know how we will do this, I don’t have much hope that we actually WILL do this, but nevertheless I want to keep learning and I know that I will learn from those whose lives are most impacted by these systems.  I know that I will learn from those who rage, those whose actions and voices show us just how profoundly our communities are hurting.  Unitarian Universalists and all those who care deeply about other human beings are being called to witness, to listen and to work for a whole new paradigm.  A paradigm in which people are people, in which black lives matter, a paradigm in which problems are problems, in which racism and poverty are fully and openly addressed by all of us.

About the Author

Annie is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and currently serves our faith as the Young Adult and Campus Ministry Associate for the Unitarian Universalist Association.
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