The Failure to Protect Our Children Where They Need It Most

Victoria Brown on Manifestations of Violence in Schools

When, after 27 years, my family left Brooklyn for Orlando, my New York friends had one of three responses: Are you crazy? Florida? What about hurricanes? We weren’t crazy. I’d been offered the rare tenure-track position teaching creative writing at a small liberal arts college. Florida stayed warm year-round. And really, how often did hurricanes hit? I wasn’t naïve about their concerns, but my biggest worries centered on my biracial [and so, black] children: moving them from the only home they’d known, from their friends, and from the North to the South.

Eighteen months in, the kids claim to be fine, only copping to missing snow. But my daughter has become quieter and my son, much louder. I schedule an appointment with a therapist, an unrelated adult to whom they will hopefully unburden themselves without reservation. We’re no longer brand new to Florida but still new enough that outside our familiar home, work, and school neighborhoods, Orlando remains a series of lakes, flatlands, and nearly identical strip malls with fast-food restaurants and the same big-box shops: Ross, Dick’s, Stein Mart, Hobby Lobby.

After I get my son, GPS tells me I need 20 minutes to make their 4:30 appointment. I was going to make it too, until the middle school pickup loop, an inch-by-inch progression occasionally halted by kids with the temerity to say bye to each other. My daughter answers neither my text nor call to meet me in the stalled queue, even though she most certainly has her warm phone in her hand.

When finally she is in the car, we have 15 minutes to make our 20-minute trip. The traffic light changes long enough to permit four vehicles, maybe a swift fifth. From far back I watch four cars go, fifth car balk, light change. Ancient crossing guard lets kids through. Light changes. I am the fifth car, and I am still an impatient New Yorker. The third car dawdles, imperceptibly, forever. I writhe, I sigh, I telepath, Go! Fourth car. Room for me. Not really. Yellow? Red? I go.

Woop, woop.

That’s the sound of the sixth car: the police.

I stop. Through his loudspeaker, the amplified officer directs me: “Drive to the intersection, make a right, pull over, and wait inside your vehicle.” Busted.

I follow his instructions. My son sitting next to me asks if he should crawl into the back. I squeeze his leg. Of course not, I tell him. I’m a little freaked. I’m all the wrongs. A black woman driving a car in Florida, and maybe I just ran a red light.

The officer comes to my lowered window. I keep my hands on the steering wheel. “Hi, Officer,” I say. “You know what? I ran that light. I’m not even going to pretend like I didn’t. I’m so sorry. My children are late for a therapist appointment and…”

“Listen,” he says, “I know it’s a long light, but you have to be careful.”

“You’re absolutely right,” I tell him. “This probably won’t mean much, but I don’t run red lights.” I shrug, but it’s the truth. “I’m late. I’m not sure where we’re going…”

He cuts me off. Lifts his chin toward my lit phone, nestled in the console between the front seats. “Is that GPS?” he asks and holds his hand out for my phone.

A tiny part of me calculates that I have to take at least one hand off the steering wheel to reach for the phone. A slightly bigger part of me remembers Philando Castile. Sandra Bland.

I give him the phone and return my hand to the wheel. He sees the GPS set to an address in Maitland. I wonder what else he’s trained to see. Maybe the small faculty sticker from my private college adhered to the front windscreen. Maybe not that I’m dressed professionally. Maybe my hair which I wear naturally? Crazy thoughts.

“Can I see your license?”

It is a twisted, emetic feeling: knowing the potential instrument of your demise rests so close.

I am going down, I think. For one, both hands need to come off the steering wheel to root around my very big, blue bag to get to my wallet. The kids are uncharacteristically quiet. Secondly, if this operation goes smoothly, if I survive retrieving my wallet, the license I will procure is issued by New York State. I have refused to get a Florida license because two months before our move I spent $80 for a New York State renewal, and I think, well, America is America. Why do I need to get a Florida license when I have a perfectly good New York one? We haven’t moved to Canada.

A part of me wants to state, for the record, “I’m going to reach into my bag to get my license,” but I calculate some goodwill here. Do I risk fouling what’s so far been a pretty civil exchange by letting on that I think I could be in mortal danger? That I am scared for my children’s safety? I don’t. I ask my son to pass me my bag, set it on my lap, and reach in without looking down. I hand over my license, and the officer says, more to himself than me, “New York State-issued. Valid.”

I’m doing the math: How much for running the red, how much for the out-of-state license, is there a fine for a minor riding up front? And now, we are late to our appointment anyway. Louder, the officer says, “OK, ma’am. Please be careful, especially with your kids in the car.” He returns my license. “Drive down the street, and you can turn around to get back on Glenridge. Have a good evening, OK.”

I don’t remember if I said anything to him, bar thank you and a repeated apology. I do know that I lectured my children the entire way to Maitland about the need to always speak the truth. I ran the red light. Yes, the light had just turned, and I could have argued it was yellow when I entered the intersection, but ultimately, I ran it. The officer, I tell them, is the one with all the power. Throughout our encounter, I’d considered the gun holstered at his side.

It is a twisted, emetic feeling: knowing the potential instrument of your demise rests so close. To think of the other encounters begun with broken tail lights and failures to signal that ended differently, with black lives lost. To fear for your children. I harp on about telling the truth and respecting authority despite knowing full well that, depending on so many other factors, truth and respect can have nothing to do with the outcome. I wonder to myself about the unknowable algorithm of factors that got me off with a warning.

The officer follows us for two miles. I happen to think he would have been going that way anyway, but the kids are convinced he’s tailing us.

“He’s my school’s resource officer,” my daughter tells me. “He’s horrible.”

“Horrible? Why?” We did not just have a horrible experience.

“He gave some eighth-grade boys tickets for skateboarding,” she says.

I’m doubtful. Can kids even get tickets? For skateboarding? At their own school? I don’t disbelieve her, but maybe she’s misunderstood what she saw. “Are you sure, honey?”

She’s sure. “None of the kids at school think he’s very nice.”

*

A week or two after Officer Santiago pulled me over for a minor traffic infraction, he tased, pepper-sprayed, manhandled, and handcuffed two sixth grade girls who were fighting at my daughter’s middle school. When my daughter described seeing the fight, she insisted the girls had been dancing before the incident turned violent. At first I’m not sure what she means, but after watching the different video clips several times, I understand her mistake. The girls’ adolescent bravado, the waving and flailing in each other’s faces, their stepping up and shrinking back, has the semblance of choreography, a coming-of-age call and response ritual that culminates in a violent embrace: each girl uses her left hand to secure the other while their right hands windmill blows.

My daughter thinks of dance, but as I watch and re-watch the clips, I consider our new Florida lives and think in hurricane terminology. The girls warm up like a storm tracker imprecisely predicting a hurricane’s path. Will it hit, won’t it? There’s real threat, but it could just drizzle. Sometimes though, it’s a direct hit. Matthew, Maria, Irma. The girls go down.

The school resource officer has his own rules of interpretation. The measured pace at which Officer Santiago approaches the girls does not seem commensurate with the actions he is soon to take. As the girls grapple, he stalks and steps around to their whirling bodies. He makes no attempt to separate them. Simultaneously, the bare legs of another adult male enter the frame, but he, too, walks past the scrapping girls. I’ve seen fights before, at my primary and secondary school. Always we gathered, stunned by that swift shift from bravado to blows. Always I expected the fights to be gentler, but that was before I understood adrenaline.

Fighting at school is not ok, but children have always fought. What’s new is the criminalization of children.

And these two girls are going at each other. It’s scared fighting, you realize. In another cropped, chaotic video they cling and throw blind, unpracticed punches. I expect Officer Santiago or the other adult to pounce in like I had seen principals, teachers, or even older students do, to physically restrain them, in a bear hug if necessary, before someone gets seriously hurt. The girls are melded together, each either unwilling or unable to holler ‘nuff. They fall to the ground, and suddenly, the bigger of the two girls goes rigid. The other, the one who’s taken the worst of it, makes as if to scramble away from the stiffened body. Officer Santiago grabs her scurrying form and flips her onto her back. Only then do I realize the rigid girl has been tased.

I rewind the clip and hear the faint pop, the electrical discharge of the Taser. Stupidly, I marvel at law enforcement that calibrates voltage for middle school bodies, until it occurs to me that this is the same shock a grown man would receive. My own arms go limp in sympathy. A male voice, either Officer Santiago or the other adult, shouts, “Move, move, move,” and I think this late directive is aimed at the congregated students rather than the girls. There’s coughing, and the clip cuts off. Later, the WFTV evening news coverage clarifies the chronology of events. First, Officer Santiago used a “chemical spray” on both girls, the excess Capsicum hitting several of the watching children. He then tases the first girl. After he body-slams the 11-year-old, he tases her as well.

An aftermath photo posted to a reporter’s Twitter feed sums up best why this officially sanctioned punishment is the worst course of action. The 13-year-old is sprawled in the courtyard, her hands cuffed behind her, legs spread wide, as she tries to hold up her head off the ground; the younger child, also cuffed, stands close to the officer, head down, face obscured by her hanging hair. One shoe is a short distance away. Classmates walk by and bear witness to their humiliation. Studying the snapshot, I consider the psychological impact for all the children involved.

What stereotypes about guilt, innocence, and authority are introduced or reinforced by this image? Fighting at school is not ok, but children have always fought. What’s new is the criminalization of children. When did it become policy to break up a schoolyard fight with more violence and weapons? When did school boards and law enforcement decide it reasonable to treat our children like felons? When did this become “protocol”? In addition to “40 Hours of School Resource Officer basic training” and a list of other procedures, Florida school officers also complete “Disproportionate Minority Contact training.” The stated goal of this training is to help law enforcement implement strategies to recognize and reduce minority contact with the juvenile justice system.

WFTV immortalizes the altercation on social media, including a segment of cell phone video and interviews with the girls’ classmates and mothers. Both women choose to remain anonymous, but the camera captures their anguish, their shaking heads, worried hands, and teary disbelief that their daughters have been treated like adult offenders. Neither mother ever says her child was right to fight, but you can see and hear the women puzzle over the punishment. They’re so restrained, I think, almost reluctant to raise the appropriate ire, the hell I would raise if someone tased my children. They’re cowed, I think, afraid to show emotion lest they perpetuate some inculcated stereotype.

And the worst has happened: their daughters have been taken away from an environment where they are supposed to be kept safe. The baying internet, however, feels justice has been served. The news station’s Facebook feed has 131 comments on this story. I read every one. Condensed, the most common takeaway is that the girls are animals who deserve to be treated like animals, and they clearly have incompetent, irresponsible parents who have not taught them to respect authority. There’s also a lot of kudos to Officer Santiago for a job well done.

At first, I wait. I wait for the outcry from parents, for the protests, for the phone calls, for the PTA meeting, for the town hall gathering, for news of Officer Santiago’s firing, resignation, investigation, for assurances that no child at my daughter’s school will be tased or pepper-sprayed or hand-cuffed and carted off to juvenile hall again. None of this is forthcoming. Instead we receive an anodyne recorded message about an “incident” at the school from an assistant principal. The girls are not released to their parents or given detention or suspended from school. They are transported to a Juvenile Detention Center, booked for disorderly conduct and, bizarrely, for resisting law enforcement officers without violence.

At least, I think, Officer Santiago will be given desk duty or reassigned so the other children don’t have to see the object of their terror, the uniformed man who carries a loaded gun and a Taser and pepper spray he’s not afraid to use. But my daughter tells me that he’s at work the following day. Still, I wait because two sixth-grade girls have been treated like criminals, and surely the parents in this pristine, upper-middle class, Orlando community are frothing, foaming, fomenting. I am.

I have two separate talks with colleagues at my college whose daughters also attend this middle school. Both are upset but also seem resigned. I’m not in Brooklyn anymore, they tell me. This is the South; both girls are brown. No, I think. That can’t be it, can it? But I’ve been American for long enough to consider that yes, if this had happened to two Caucasian girls, the outcome and the collective outcry might be different. Would this have happened to two Caucasian girls?

Eventually, I write the school’s principal. I want to know if his administration considers the incident appropriately handled. In a way, the form response I receive to my inquiry is reassuring; the utter impersonality of the correspondence, the untenanted “Hello” salutation (even though I signed my letter with my name and my husband’s) encourages me to think enough parents have reached out to warrant a drafted response. The response is bunk. My introductory composition students would pick apart the lazy “No students were harmed and those effected [sic] were immediately seen by our school RN.”

Here are my thoughts during my first lockdown: This is not a drill. I love my children. My students are very scared.

The principal also passes the buck. His e-mail contains quadruple repetition of the word “protocol” and uses the empty, professionalized language of “2 organizational silos” to suggest that the school’s response is independent of and secondary to police procedure. Oh, he also says we are lucky to have a full-time Orlando police officer on campus.

But the kids know right from wrong. Our daughter tells us students have handed out “Teach Me, Don’t Tase Me!” stickers. She was too late to get one but shows us her forearm where she’s scrawled the message in indelible Sharpie. The students call the officer Santiago-sauce behind his back. The following day, the Parkland mass shooting occurs and, like damning political news released on the Friday night before a three-day weekend, Orlando Tweens Tased is buried.

Later we will learn that Deputy Scot Peterson, the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School resource officer, who presumably had the same arsenal at the ready as Officer Santiago, chose not to enter that school during the massacre. Instead, he remains crouched outside while the 19-year-old intruder armed with an AR15 shoots 34 students and staff members. Seventeen are killed.

*

The alert comes in my mid-afternoon class: “Active shooter on campus. Shelter in place.”

Our first lockdown happens soon after the Marjorie Stoneman massacre. We are still raw at the thought of 17 shot-up bodies not far from where we are. The Parkland survivors have done a damn good job of keeping their atrocity in the news, and none of us is unaware of the tapestry we could potentially be woven into. The notice comes during my creative nonfiction class. We are discussing Orwell’s “A Hanging,” interrogating how he uses narrative journalism to make a case against the death penalty.

Orwell, never pedantic or political, demonstrates his condemned man’s humanity: walking to the gallows, he nimbly skips to avoid a puddle. In class, I, too, refrain from the overtly political. We use Orwell’s essay as a craft manual, not for social analysis. It is toward the tail end of our discussion, as we examine the author’s use of a mongrel’s fidelity to illuminate the executioner’s lack of humanity, that a student holds up her phone and says we’re on lockdown. We all reach for our phones.

“Oh boy,” another student starts, but I cut her off. I have not been trained for this, but we are taking the alert seriously.

Here are my thoughts during my first lockdown: This is not a drill. I love my children. My students are very scared. I’m scared, but I am the adult in the room. The blinds aren’t all the way to the sill, and we are on the ground floor. The gunman can see us and shoot into the room. We are sitting ducks. One student is crying too loudly. My husband and I have been getting along for a nice stretch. He’ll never be able to detangle our children’s hair. I love my children. My daughter needs me most right now, and my son has a list of allergies only I can keep track of. I’ve not had a workshop for this.

My beautiful, smart, talented, curious students are crouching under the conference table. Is my new blood pressure medicine keeping me calm? This is really happening to us right now. This happened to high school students two weeks ago. Many died. Comfort the crying student whose sobs might be audible through the locked door. What if I never see my children again?

“Everybody down, on the floor,” I say and go to lock the door. Except every time I test the lock, the door opens. I have no idea whether it’s locked from the outside. I try maybe six times in a row and realize I have to step of out the classroom to try the door from outside. I beckon E over: tall, golfer, Canadian.

“I’m going to step out. Lock the door. I’ll try it. And then open it immediately.” I try to say this last part in a joking way but realize I am terrified. Some students are watching, some have disappeared under the conference table. E and I execute the door check in five interminable seconds. When I step out into the hall, my own adrenaline surges past my prescription Atenolol. I have a stress headache for the rest of the day.

Back in the classroom, two female students are closing the blinds. They are trying to help, but I hear my voice go a register too harsh when I tell them to step away.

I text my husband. I can’t do the back and forth he wants. Luv u. This will b fine. Tell kids I luv them. I never, ever, text with abbreviations.

We crouch and wait. We’ve been conditioned to expect that the worst happens all the time now. The “all clear” comes after eight agonizing minutes. Never has relief felt more burdened. My students move slowly. Class is obviously over, but no one rushes to leave the room. We sit and text our families. Share our fear. Our school will make counselors and chaplains available to all who need help, and we do. We’re not able to shake this as a one-off and move on. We know it’s only a matter of time, even if not here, before the threat rises again, and then again, like hurricanes.

My own children still miss New York, but Florida, a true battleground state, will teach them the value of their American rights and that those rights have to be fought for; here we vote, we protest, we march. Despite their Brooklyn public school having been racially, socially, economically, and ethnically diverse, everyone was on message: treat others with respect, like you want to be treated. Here, the pendulum swings widely, and so far, we feel outnumbered by conservatives who unabashedly use their public profiles to call children animals and their parents thugs. We are wary of any police encounter, and we are spooked by the frequency of gun violence that seems all too imminent.

Slowly, we adjust. In the North, after even the worst blizzard, the snow melts, and normal returns fairly quickly. The hurricanes that pound the South leave destruction in their wake. It takes organized action to clean up the damage.

__________________________________

From Apogee Journal (Issue 12). Reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2019 by Victoria Brown.

Victoria Brown
Victoria Brown
Victoria Brown is the author of Minding Ben, (2011, Hyperion). Her short fiction has been published in The Caribbean Writer, Killens Review, Caribbean Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction writing and interviews have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, New York Magazine, Apogee, Guernica, and in other print and online publications. She is Assistant Professor of English at Rollins College in Orlando.





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