I'm going to come address the situation in Paris from three different angles:
Disclaimer: I do not know Shaquanda Cotton nor her mother Creola Cotton. I am a graduate of Paris High School and I have two nephews and a godson currently enrolled at Paris High School. I'm bringing my own perspective to the story from news reports and anecdotal conversations over the previous months.
The case of Shaquanda Cotton has become bigger than any one individual, any one school, and any one town. As a matter of fact, the article of the Cotton family's plight was one of the most popular articles at digg.com yesterday. But individual lives are at stake, the lives of our children.
One of the challenges with cases like Ms. Cotton's is that trying to understand them from any one point of view diminishes their magnitude and scope, and often leads to misplaced energy. Racism in the schools is real; I'll deal with that tomorrow. Our justice system is unjust; that's for Monday. But today, I have to talk about the broken homes in the black community and our broken kids who we are sending to school.
There is not one school district in America that is designed to educate African-American children. While districts across the country try to figure out the best way to teach our new neighbors from the south, there has not been one attempt by our government in 400 years to fashion a curriculum that serves the unique needs of black youth. As such, if a child does not go to his first day of kindergarten understanding the importance of education and that school is only a place to learn (not play and socialize), chances are they will never get it.
Parents are getting younger and younger in our community. It's amazing how many high school graduates have parents who are 35 years old and younger. So in the most influential year of a child's life, years 1-5, many of our children are being raised by children. Not only that, but more than 40% of Black children live with a single mother compared to 20% of Hispanic children and 12 % of white children. Black fathers are often absent and children our missing a vital part of their development by not having a male present. Not that children can't succeed under those circumstances, but their success is the exception rather than the rule. This is not new information, but it speaks to the unique challenges many African-American children face when they walk through the school's door.
In my days in the Paris Independent School District, there were so many ways that our brokenness manifested itself in the classroom, in the hallways, and on the bus. I remember one of my good friends who when the teachers left the room would pass gas, get up and walk around fanning his stinky behind in the face of classmates. Or my boys high school who brought crack to school in empty 35 mm film cases.
And why do our kids fight so much? I can recount the many throwdowns that occurred on the bus after school let out. There were also fights in the hallway, many times between best friends. Young black girls were the worst when it came to fighting. Hair pulling, clothes tearing, face scratching, these girls got down for theirs. I don't recall once see two white females involved in a physical altercation during my school years.
And there is still a big problem with fighting in Paris Schools. But now it's not just the kids, but sometimes the mothers jump in and it's like a tag team match. There are also instances where hundreds of kids, black and white, congregate at the park in my old neighborhood and tape street brawls. The police are slow to intervene if they respond at all. None of what I mentioned is unique to Paris. Nor is sex in the schools. I was at church here in Dallas one day and kids ran over to tell us that a young lady at the high school across the street was giving boys oral sex for a dollar while they waited for the bus.
One of my nephews was getting in lots of trouble as a freshman at Paris High School. I met with one of his teachers, who was black, that outlined the discipline problems that she was having out of him in her class. One of the most frustrating parts of this problem was that he was able to do the work, but his behavior was too often getting in the way. Fortunately for him there was a family intervention, in the second half of his 9th grade year. The path that he was on had only two outcomes: death or jail. By the Grace of God he was able to get himself on the right track his sophomore year and he is scheduled to graduate this year. There was nothing that Paris High School did, or would have done for him more than call the police to come pick him up.
We as a community must have higher expectations of our children, demand more of ourselves as parents and mentors, and have a more realistic view of public schools. Schools are not designed to motivate our kids to learn or teach our children how to act. We have to have what Henry Louis Gates refers to as a " moral revolution." Gates actually says it like this: “Unless there is a moral revolution and a revolution in attitude among our people, unless [our kids] decide to stay in school, learn the ABCs, not to get pregnant when you’re 16, not to run drugs, not to sell drugs…we’re doomed to have a relatively small black middle class and huge underclass and never the twain shall meet."
In the end, our intolerance of poor behavior will have to equal our disdain for racism and injustice. We have to hold our parents to the same standards to which we hold our teachers and our administrators. A wise and seasoned sister that I heard speak at the Tavis Smiley meeting last month put it like this, "…No Child Left Behind sucks, but we are leaving our own children behind."