Illustration by Erin Taj

“We’re Not in Prison. We’re in School.”

The classrooms where Black Lives Matter is more than a hashtag

Drive pass South Los Angeles’s Dorsey High School on any given school day, and you’re likely to notice the four cop cars stationed outside. “We don’t need to be patrolled. We’re not in prison. We’re in school,” says senior Tyonna Hatchett, dressed in an oversized camouflage army jacket and tan Birkenstocks and standing on the steps leading up Dorsey’s auditorium.

Hatchett is a student officer of Students Deserve, a three-year-old advocacy campaign to push for more resources and support for students in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). “We’re not asking for much, just a fair shot and more electives,” Hatchett explains.

On September 29, in conjunction with Black Lives Matter, the group invited students, parents, activists and teachers from schools throughout the Los Angeles system to a packed event in Dorsey’s auditorium to advocate for smaller class sizes, more nurses, more electives and more college counselors at their schools. Much of the event was spent in a panel discussion with students who shared their experiences feeling incriminated by police on their campuses and in their neighborhoods.

“We’re students. We should have at least one nurse on campus everyday,” says Hillary, a senior at Dorsey where the student body is nearly split between black and Latino students (50 percent and 47 percent, respectively). “Instead we have four police officers and five security guards.”

Hillary and other students in underfunded school districts in cities around the country are using the discourse and energy of the Black Lives Matter movement to draw attention to how the police presence on high school campuses negatively affects the psychological health of black and Latino students. “Students are very aware that the same root cause for violence against people of color is also to blame for increased security and underfunding in our schools,” says Sharonne Hapuarachy, an English teacher at Dorsey High who helped put together the Students Deserve event and who sees “a new type of student activist that realizes they need more college counselors and less police officers at their schools.”

At a time when officer-involved shootings of young black Americans make headlines on a near weekly basis, conversations about police brutality — and the steps the Black Lives Matter movement is taking to stop it — are organically creeping into high school classrooms and occasionally posing challenges to student activists and teachers who want to talk about it. “Last year, we passed out fact sheets,” remembers Hillary. “They showed the disproportionate number of African Americans and Latino men that have been targeted by police, but our principal at the time said we couldn’t make those types of announcements on school property.”

But it’s not only students who feel activated by the Black Lives Matter movement; educators feel a similar responsibility to engage their students in discussions about ways to address police violence toward communities of color — even though it can be sensitive and difficult. Maria Bennett, an English teacher at Crenshaw High in South L.A., admits that she doesn’t always know what to say. “My father always told me to comply with the police. But when you have individuals who comply and still end up dead, what do you say then?”

According to official policy teachers “cannot espouse a particular view — just like they cannot endorse a political candidate,” clarifies Gayle Pollard Terry, deputy chief communications officer for LAUSD. “[T]eachers can discuss these kind of issues within the context of instruction.”

But other times “these kind of issues” come up in a much more personal and painful context. “About five or six weeks ago, one of our own students, Kenny Watson, 17, was shot and killed,” says Bennett. Watson became the 16th person shot by on-duty LAPD officers this year, according to data compiled by the Los Angeles Times. Though there were two handguns recovered at the scene, the LAPD is still investigating what prompted the officer to open fire during a traffic stop. “After Kenny was shot, the conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement became more personal,” remembers Bennett. “With the frequency of the shootings, the framework for having these conversations has intensified. The protests have gotten louder and more common.”

Not just at Crenshaw but at high schools around the country, where student athletes in Seattle, Oakland, Camden, N.J., San Francisco, and elsewhere have followed the example set by pro football player Colin Kaepernick by sitting out the national anthem. “At our last football game, the cheerleaders and football players knelt and put their fists in the air during the national anthem while a group of students taped their mouths closed and weren’t speaking all day,” says Happaruchy.

While liberal, diverse Los Angeles is more welcoming of this message, bringing Black Lives Matter onto high school campuses can still be controversial. “When our principal told the bosses at the district level that Students Deserve and Black Livers matter were going to co-host the event inside Dorsey’s auditorium, they asked if she was crazy,” says Happaruchy. “They said ‘You’re going to let Black Lives Matter on your campus?’ The UTLA (United Teachers Los Angeles) had to get involved and they helped to make it happen.”

Ellen Morgan, a communications officer of LAUSD, says she understands the importance of facilitating discussions about police-involved killings and the message of Black Lives Matter, but thinks it’s vital that those conversations “be student-lead, not teacher-lead, to collaborate to ensure that our schools are safe and affirming, and that any conversation helps promote healing.”

Bennett, who has been a teacher for 17 years, sees it slightly differently. Though she prefers that students engage in these conversations on their own, she also understands her responsibility as an educator to expose the untruths in a community that does its young people a disservice by purporting a false hope.

“Crenshaw has a reputation as an athletic school but that’s a false sense of reality. Our students aren’t going to the next level. They’re not being recruited for their athletic abilities because of their academics.” Part of the problem she says is that, Crenshaw’s school motto, ‘Every Cougar is college bound,’ is deceptive to the community and its students. Since the school only offers one AP course and one honors class, it’s nearly impossible for students at Crenshaw to attend one of country’s more elite universities. “How is a student-athlete from Crenshaw supposed to compete with a student-athlete from Mater Dei,” a private high school in Orange County?

Hatchett who plans to attend Washington State University to pursue her dream of becoming doctor agrees. “I don’t feel like I got a proper education. But we’re the future. Invest in us.”