When grief and profound mistrust swirl together in a threatening cloud above our heads as they have this past week, we should be forgiven the occasional lapse into fear and even despair. But even one moment of fear and despair may mask a more important reality: There are specific pragmatic solutions to the social problems we face, and people already are hard at work on them.
At a candlelight vigil for the fallen officers Monday evening, I spoke with Dallas school board member Miguel Solis, who has been working quietly with the White House for some months on an approach aimed at the plight of both law enforcement and the black citizens with whom law enforcement too often collides. It’s not the only solution. But it’s a practical and specific solution with a solid chance of achieving something.
For the first piece of that puzzle, however, the groundwork, I need to go back to remarks made earlier that same day, before the vigil, by Dallas Police Chief David O. Brown, speaking in a press conference. Without addressing allegations of abuse by police, Brown talked about the overarching role of police in our society: “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country,” he said. “We are. We’re just asking us to do too much. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve.
“Not enough mental health funding. Let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding. Let’s give it to the cop. Here in Dallas we’ve got a loose dog problem. Let’s have the cops chase loose dogs.
“Schools fail. Give it to the cops. Seventy percent of the African-American community is being raised by single women. Let’s give it to the cops to solve that as well.”
All of the societal failures Brown ticked off are important factors in creating the social conditions that give rise to the tensions between police and black citizens. And, I am not trying to palm off all responsibility for the police shootings we have seen in online videos on social conditions.
Brown hasn’t done that. He’s a leader nationally in firing bad cops, and he has taken a ton of grief for it from the unions. But even if we can make all the cops perfect, do we not also want to reduce the number of people who have to live the way Alton Sterling did, selling videos to support his family because a criminal record as long as his arm barred him from ever getting a normal job?
At the prayer vigil in front of City Hall, Desiree Woolcock, 42, who works in City Hall in the compensation department and worked previously in the police department for four and a half years, said to me: “I hate that it happened. I hate that Alton and the other guy were in that situation.”
And that’s an all-important perspective. Yes, we should hate that the cops who took him down were in that position. But we must also hate that Alton Sterling was in that position, or Philando Castile, Christian Taylor, Walter Scott, Tamir Rice – a list too long and too heartbreaking to recite here.
No one gets off the hook – cops or suspects – for their own personal responsibility if we merely acknowledge that none of this can be solved until the situation is solved. And that’s exactly what Solis is working on.
Armed with data from extensive research, Solis argues that a deeply embedded culture of school discipline in America, particularly in relation to young black boys, only drives those kids out of school faster. They leave school often before achieving basic literacy, sell drugs, get caught a few times, go to prison as felons and are from that point forward banished from normal gainful employment for the rest of their lives.
It’s what education reformers call the “kindergarten to prison pipeline.” Once a kid is in it, he will spend the rest of his life either imprisoned in an institution or out-prisoned from regular society. Even when he tries to keep himself clean, he will be prey on the streets for other outcasts like himself or for the small percentage of bad cops that no one will ever be able to eliminate completely.
So what if we could find a way to save kids from being in that position? Solis says we can, but the window is specific and small. After we spoke at the vigil, Solis and I took it up a couple days later on the phone.
He said, “One of the things that the chief said was, ‘We can’t be everything to everyone. We can’t solve all of society’s ills.’ And I completely agree with that.”
Long before the vigil, Solis had already been thinking for some time about who could take on the same challenges that the chief said were too much for police. He had already come to the conclusion that he, as a member of the Dallas school board, was one of those people.
He told me he started out by wondering, “Were there a quote-unquote panacea institution, were there to be one, what would that be?
“I started thinking,” he said, “about the path to being in front of an officer and being placed in the position where you may be on the receiving end of what Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were.”
Elected in 2013 when he was still in his twenties, Solis, who attended graduate school at Harvard, was the youngest person ever elected to the Dallas school board. Since his election, he has continued to be in touch and collaborate with top education scholars around the country including some now working at the White House. He is convinced that public education offers us the only window we will ever find to reach in and change the life of the next Alton Sterling or Philando Castile.
“You only do education in American society three ways,” he told me on the phone. “You get it through the parents. Or you get it through the school. Or in many cases you get it through the streets or the school of hard knocks.
“We are less capable of controlling the education one receives via a parent. We are less in control of the education one receives on the streets, in the state of nature. But we are absolutely in control of the education one receives when they are in a school.”
He says he is working from a deep archive of research showing that traditional methods of school discipline have been especially punitive and violent toward black boys who are discipline problems. Corporal punishment at school and sky-high rates of out-of-school suspension only teach a kid that the world is violent and his school hates him.
Solis believes there are “ingrained biases” in the way public schools mete out discipline. “We have to cleanse our system of the violence in the institutions. If we don’t, then there is absolutely no way we can educate and cleanse the violence of man through education.”
A better approach to discipline, Solis says, now being tested in a pilot program in Dallas schools, employs a combination of predictive and so-called “restorative” strategies to resolve discipline problems. A teacher may give kids a survey questionnaire at the beginning of the year, for example, in order to know ahead of time which kids are most likely to pose challenges. That way a tailored strategy of counseling and other responses can already be in hand if and when the kid does act up.
He says one of the chief goals must be to “make sure that they know they are loved.” If family life is terrible, if the parents are awful, then that’s all the more reason for the school to step in and provide the missing nurture.
Mainly, the school must demonstrate by its own behavior that happiness and fulfillment are to be found in a more gentle life rather than in toughness and aggression: “If we are disproportionately disciplining young African-American boys at an extremely early age and we tell them that they need to not be violent, they need to comply, then we are hypocritical.”
As any veteran parent can tell you, the one thing for which all kids are eagle-eyed and never fail to spot in their parents is hypocrisy, so it’s probably the same for schools.
In the end here today, I find Solis’ work and thinking fascinating – rich food for thought – but I’m not even trying to sell you on his specific approach to the problem of school discipline. What’s more important to me, on this terrible week in Dallas, is that Solis is doing exactly what Chief Brown so eloquently pleaded with us all to do in his remarks last Monday.
Solis isn’t shrugging and saying, “Let the cops handle it.” He’s working. He’s thinking. He’s striving for answers that will go straight to what Desiree Woolcock pointed to at the vigil. The situation. Ultimately, we all live in the situation.
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