Schools Should Excuse Absences Due to Participation in Civil Disobedience

NEW ORLEANS – It’s finals week at my daughter’s university, but in spite of her school’s calendar, I expect her to join the acts of civil disobedience blooming across the country. All students, especially those in high school and college, currently face the appearing choice of testing the curriculum of injustice (AKA institutional oppression) or being tested by it.

Many will advise that the best thing black and brown youth can do to exact justice is to literally stay the course – that mastering coursework is paramount in effecting change. Unfortunately, Trayvon Martin wasn’t allowed to play out that theory.

Audre Lorde said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Sometimes we must step outside our institutions to change them. The systems that assisted in the deaths of Tamir Rice, John Crawford, Mike Brown and hundreds who remain unrecognized are connected to our systems of schooling. By staying the course, we wrongly disassociate our classrooms from the world.

Related: Next generation of activists confronts Mississippi’s violent past on Freedom Summer anniversary

Teachers and professors are not immune from the same biases that police act upon. Teachers are just as scared of black people as police, and the same community tensions that stem from a lack of diversity in police forces are also created by a lack of diversity in the teaching faculty. Moreover, aren’t no-tolerance policies in the criminal justice system the first cousins of no-tolerance policies in schools? African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. African American public school students are suspended three times more often than their white counterparts.

High school students and supporters participate in a protest against the Ferguson, Mo., grand jury decision, in front of City Hall, in Aurora, Colo., Friday, Dec. 5, 2014. Students from several Aurora high schools left school Friday in protest. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

High school students and supporters participate in a protest against the Ferguson, Mo., grand jury decision, in front of City Hall, in Aurora, Colo., Friday, Dec. 5, 2014. Students from several Aurora high schools left school Friday in protest. (AP Photo/Brennan Linsley)

Ferguson-Florissant Board of Education President Mr. Rob Chabot said, “Every day counts when it comes to time in the classroom for our students.” This is true, especially for the early and primary grades. In response to the absences surrounding the death of Mike Brown, many organizations offered academic support for students in north St. Louis as well as teaching materials for students throughout the country. But what if our classrooms are part of the problem?

The Ferguson supports didn’t provide enough guidance on how to participate in non-violent resistance. This is understandable give the violent reaction from police as well as the chaos that usually ensues in protest the magnitude of what we’ve seen in the last few months. We want to keep our children safe.

Related: Have lessons about Mississippi’s violent past become optional?

I’m resolved in believing that there are no safe spaces. This should be clear as the video of Daniel Pantaleo applying a chokehold on Eric Garner who died on camera.

In addition, formal education teaches a hidden curriculum – “[lessons] which are learned but not openly intended” – that is not necessarily conducive for radical change. Formal schooling tacitly transmits the values of compliance, reverence and temperance. In other words, don’t ask colleges, universities and K-12 leaders to promote radical social change. Consequently, we must assume that formal schooling is part of the problem.

I’d be proud if my daughter helped accelerate social change through civil disobedience. But just like student-fueled movements of the past, this budding civil rights movement will need its students to matriculate through a rigorous curriculum of its own that strategically disrupts inequities in education, policing and other critical area.

Related: Willing to die for justice? Comparing post-Katrina student activism to Freedom Summer

However, my daughter won’t build a life for herself or others by disrupting our daily routines. But if she told me she would use a semester to train like those students who participated in Freedom Summer a little more than fifty years ago I would have no reservations. For my daughter owes her education to previous students’ participation in non-violent action for the civil rights movement.

“Sometimes students must leave schools to teach the rest of society.”

In the summer of 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), the NAACP and a swarm of college students from sites across the country joined forces to erect schools and register voters in the South. Civil rights history will always remember images of the 1960 four African American college students who did a sit-in at the F.W. Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. Within a year, “an estimated 70,000 people had participated in sit-ins across the country (more than 3,000 of them were arrested).”

In 1963, with the help of the Southern Christian Leadership conference, thousands of high school students formed the Children’s Crusade and descended upon Birmingham to march. The infamous Bull Connor unleashed police dogs and opened fire hoses upon those young students. And it was those images of the police brutality that shocked the conscious of the country and sparked federal intervention. Sound familiar?

It’s hard not to compare the Civil Rights era to events following the announcements of the non-indictments from the Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Students like John Lewis, Diane Nash, and John Bevel certainly received a quality formal education, but so much of their training occurred outside the school and university walls.

Related: Q & A with original freedom school student Roy DeBerry: ‘You need to know about the past’

Specifically, I advised my daughter that in the event that a scheduled exam fell on a date of an organized protest to ask the professor for an alternate date. If I could, I would also advise her professors and teachers to embrace the moment. Teach-ins, campus wide discussions and assignments should respond to what students are struggling with in the here and now. Many colleges and schools are doing just that. And I hope universities won’t judge arrests from protesting as a bad thing. I think MLK had a pretty successful career as a former convict.

In the end, I want my daughter to receive an education that will give her the kind of control discrimination and status quo prevent her from having. I also want her education to give her the wherewithal to respond to social injustice appropriately. She should be able to discern when missing school is a revolutionary act.

Let’s face it. We can’t wait for schools and universities to drive social change. Sometimes students must leave schools to teach the rest of society.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).