I was not surprised by the recent incident at a Starbucks in Philadelphia in which two Black men were arrested for waiting on a friend before ordering, a practice that is reenacted in coffee houses across the country every day. I was not surprised because having spent two decades in the field of education, I have seen and heard of numerous accounts of school safety officers being called to detain and remove Black children whose actions were similar to those regularly demonstrated by other kids their age, with one marked difference: their skin made them a threat.
The data recently released by the U.S. Department of Education supports my lived experiences. Although Black/African American students make up 15% of the overall public school population, they constitute an alarming 31% of “students referred to law enforcement or subjected to school-related arrests”—over twice the amount that would be expected given enrollment numbers. What does this mean in light of the current conversations around how Black bodies are being viewed and treated in eateries from Starbucks to the Waffle House? It means that the bias-based fear, rooted in centuries of institutionalized racism, which led to police being called in Philadelphia is not limited to baristas and food servers. Instead, it is pervasive in every corner of our country, and it is affecting our youngest and most vulnerable.
Unlike private businesses such as Starbucks, which often post signs reminding customers that they have the right to refuse service to anyone, our public schools are responsible for teaching every child who walks through their doors. Another stark difference: the trigger-happy Starbucks manager had to call 911 to have officers dispatched to her store. For many school personnel, it is as easy as dialing the extension for the school safety office, and the officers who are already stationed on-site appear nearly instantaneously. The prevalence of police at schools with Black students puts them at even greater risk of being disproportionately arrested on the campuses that are charged with protecting and educating them. As a result, infractions from the often nebulous “defiance” and “disrespect” to using a cellphone at school can easily go from classroom concerns to criminal convictions.
One could argue that if students (and adult professionals) followed every rule (even those that are not consistently enforced), there would be no need for law enforcement to be called. But holding everyone to that standard would leave Starbucks locations and classrooms empty across the nation on a regular basis. And far too often the decision to call police has nothing to do with a broken rule or policy but instead is about a Black adult or child having the gall to show emotion, express frustration, evidence anger or demonstrate disapproval of a situation that feels unjust. The true infraction is showing up as a fully-feeling, fully-expressive Black human being.
So as rightfully enraged calls go out from the public to boycott Starbucks across the country, let us not forget that each year thousands of our children are having the police called on them and being removed from spaces that most do not have the privilege to boycott. Let us not forget that schools are often the first places where our children learn the harsh lessons of what it means to be Black in America.
Christina Hale-Elliott is a mother of three and an education equity coach. She works with school districts, teacher education programs, and parent advocacy groups across the country to promote equitable student outcomes through the use of culturally responsive education. Christina received her master’s degree in teaching and curriculum from Harvard University and has been in the field of social justice education for nearly 20 years. Follow her on twitter @C_HaleElliott.