Trayvon Martin and Violence in Urban Schools

Martin Photo 1

by Christopher Paslay

Ignoring the dysfunctional behavior of troubled youth perpetuates chaos in American public schools and robs children of their right to learn.     

As “Justice for Trayvon” rallies pop-up in cities across America over the acquittal of neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, a relevant fact central to the outcome of the trial has been universally ignored: that Trayvon Martin assaulted Zimmerman, striking, straddling, and then beating the Hispanic man to the point where Zimmerman feared for his life.  One juror has stated publicly that she had “no doubt that George feared for his life,” and that “his heart was in the right place.”

These statements—and the jury’s verdict (a verdict that former President Jimmy Carter agrees with)—were made after six women jurors considered all the evidence in the three-week long trial, including testimonies from over 50 witnesses, analysis of the bullet wound in Martin’s chest that showed that he was on top of Zimmerman, pictures of Zimmerman’s broken nose and lacerations to his scalp, 911 calls from panicked neighbors, and Zimmerman’s own video account of the incident, among many other things.  Yet somehow these facts and all the trial evidence gets pushed aside by the “Justice for Trayvon” folk.  The propagandistic narrative of an innocent young African American boy coming home from a 7-Eleven with Skittles and an iced tea who was stalked and murdered in cold blood through no fault of his own continues to be put forward.

The gaping difference between the trial evidence and the narrative of Martin supporters—which now officially includes U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and the Department of Justice—is quite alarming.  When young people commit criminal acts—such as assault, robbery, drug possession, and weapons infractions—it is difficult for some people to hold them accountable.  This is especially the case when these teens are African Americans, because doing so is politically incorrect and somehow unjustly blaming “the victims” for their problems.

Take the Philadelphia student activist group Youth United for Change, for example.  In January of 2011, YUC published the report “Zero Tolerance in Philadelphia: Denying Educational Opportunities and Creating a Pathway to Prison,” which argued that the Philadelphia School District’s harsh discipline policies were turning innocent youth into criminals, especially minorities.  In a nutshell, the study absolved chronic rule-breakers of basic responsibility for their own behavior and portrayed violent and unruly students as powerless victims caught in an oppressive disciplinary system; one of the more controversial claims was that the presence of police officers and metal detectors in schools was causing minority students to act out.

The euphemism “kids will be kids” was used in defense of the report’s findings by a number of members of the Philadelphia public school community.

But the violence facing Philadelphia public schools at the time was a little bit more than simply “kids being kids.”  Consider these facts: From 2005-06 through 2009-10, the district reported 30,333 serious incidents.  There were 19,752 assaults, 4,327 weapons infractions, 2,037 drug and alcohol related violations, and 1,186 robberies.  Students were beaten by their peers in libraries and had their hair pulled out by gangs in the hall.  Teachers were assaulted over 4,000 times.

In the 2007-08 school year alone, there were nearly 15,000 criminal incidents reported in Philadelphia public schools.  According to data published in the Inquirer, 1,728 students assaulted teachers, 479 weapons were discovered inside elementary and middle school hallways and classrooms, and 357 weapons were found in high schools.

In 2012, the Philadelphia Inquirer won a Pulitzer Prize for bringing this information to light in a series called “Assault on Learning.”  Amazingly, several months after the series won the Pulitzer, Philadelphia School District officials, bowing to pressure from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, actually decided to ease the Philadelphia School District’s student code of conduct.  The reason?  The DOE published a report claiming that minority students were being disproportionally suspended and expelled from school because of racism of both the conscious and unconscious variety (although the report didn’t include a single documented case of discrimination against a student by a teacher).

Fast forward to Trayvon Martin.  Just as groups like YUC try to portray violent and unruly youth as victims of an unjust system, so do the “Justice for Trayvon” folk portray Martin as an innocent young boy who was murdered through no fault of his own.  Many people believe that the tragedy—or the crime—was that Zimmerman profiled Martin as a criminal, which is what Martin supporters insist eventually led to the boy’s death.  But legally speaking, this was not the case, which is why Zimmerman was acquitted.  According to the law, it is not illegal to watch someone from your car, or to get out and follow them; if it were, news reporters, paparazzi, private investigators, and single men interested in courting attractive women would all be behind bars.

According to the law (and the jury’s verdict), Zimmerman following Martin was not reckless or irresponsible enough to set in motion the events that eventually led to Martin’s death, which is why Zimmerman was found not guilty of manslaughter.  The act that led to Martin’s eventual death was when Martin decided to strike and attack Zimmerman, pound his head on the cement, and to put the Hispanic neighborhood watch captain in a position where he feared for his life.  Remember, when Zimmerman approached Martin, Martin could have done any one of the following: walked or ran away; went into his house; or kept a safe distance and tried to communicate.  According to the evidence and the verdict of the jury, he did none of them.  He chose to attack Zimmerman, an act that directly led to his own death.

But it is easier for Martin supporters to absolve Martin of all responsibility for his death.  Like YUC’s report “Zero Tolerance,” which absolves violent Philadelphia school students of responsibility for their behavior in classrooms, Martin was simply a “kid being a kid.”  A kid, mind you, who allegedly called Zimmerman a racist name (creepy-ass-cracker); a kid who was suspended from school not once but three times; a kid who was caught with a marijuana pipe and a baggie with drug residue; a kid who was kicked out of school for graffiti after he was caught with a “burglary tool” and a bag full of women’s jewelry; a kid who had texts on his Twitter account describing an attack on a bus driver; a kid who had a video on his cellphone of two homeless men fighting over a bicycle; a kid who had pictures of underage nude females on his cellphone, as well as pictures of marijuana plants and a hand holding a semi-automatic pistol; a kid who was staying at his father’s girlfriend’s house because he’d been kicked out of his mother’s house for getting into trouble; and a kid who, according to the verdict of the jury, chose to attack and beat a Hispanic man mixed-martial-arts-style instead of simply walking away and going into his house which was not even 70 yards away.

This is the kid whom President Obama has made his surrogate son, and the kid whose memory Obama has stated we need to “honor.”

Is Trayvon Martin’s death a tragedy?  Absolutely.  Did George Zimmerman make mistakes and bad decisions?  No doubt.  But so did Trayvon Martin.

Which leads back to the question of violence in society and our education system:  Why are America’s public schools so dysfunctional and violent?  Why, according to the FBI, are 91 percent of black victim homicides committed by black offenders, and 14 percent of white victim homicides committed by black offenders (twice as many as the other way around)?

Maybe because society continues to absolve people like Trayvon Martin of all responsibility for their actions, and categorizes dysfunctional youth behavior as simply “kids being kids.”

Three reasons why Philadelphia public schools fail (and what can be done about it)

by Christopher Paslay

Acknowledging three key problems—and providing solutions—can save the Philadelphia School District.

Thursday the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) released a report detailing “key findings and recommendations” on how to improve the workings of the Philadelphia School District (PSD).  Titled “Transforming Philadelphia’s Public Schools,” the BCG was paid $4.4 million from private donors to produce it. 

Here are three “commonsense” findings and recommendations not included in BCG’s multimillion dollar report:  

 COMMONSENSE FINDINGS: WHY THE PSD CONTINUES TO FAIL

1.  The PSD remains unable to remove the violent and unruly 15 percent of students who cripple the entire school system and ruin the educations of the hardworking 85 percent. 

Despite “School Safety Advocates” and “zero tolerance policies,” the fact remains that Philadelphia public schools are rife with violence and inappropriate student behavior (see the Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize winning series Assault on Learning).  Unfortunately, in today’s politically correct environment where a suffocating brand of educational socialism is promoted, the rights of the incorrigible few supersede the rights of the admirable many.  In other words, it is near impossible to remove students from PSD schools (even “permanently expelled” students can file a right to return to their neighborhood schools after their “sentence” is served). 

One reason is that under PA’s Compulsory Education law, school districts are responsible for providing alternative placements to students they remove from schools, and this can be quite expensive; as a result, troublemakers are forced to coexist with their peers and negatively impact classroom learning environments.      

Another reason is that social justice lobby groups (such as the Education Law Center) and student activist groups (such as Youth United for Change, the Philadelphia Student Union, and the Campaign for Nonviolent Schools) play the race card and fight to keep violent students in schools instead of putting their resources behind the educations of the majority of their hardworking peers struggling to learn.  (This is why charter schools are able to thrive in poor urban districts: instead of removing the bad to save the good, charters simply remove the good from the bad).        

2.  Too many PSD parents are “passengers” and not “drivers,” and feed off of the school system instead of fueling it. 

In the PSD, 81 percent of families are economically disadvantaged.  But this isn’t simply a financial issue; it is a cultural one as well.  In the suburbs, parents and communities drive the school system—they are the core that makes the schools run.  They parent their children and teach them that education is a priority.  They understand that being a stakeholder in their school means making an investment (chaperoning trips, helping with homework, attending teacher conferences, instilling core values in their children, etc.). 

Tragically, too many families in the PSD want to be a stakeholder without making any real investment; they suffer from an entitlement mentality, and believe that the district owes them despite the fact that they have only taken from the system and never carried their own weight and produced their fair share. 

The cycle of poverty in the PSD is tragic, but undeniable: out-of-wedlock teenage births; domestic violence; crime, drug addictions; etc.  This kind of environment is a drain on the PSD, not a force that fuels and propels the system.        

3.  Too many Philadelphia residents do not pay their property taxes.   

Why is the PSD suffering from money problems?  A major reason is because Philadelphia residents owe over $500 million (a half a billion dollars!) in property taxes.  What has the City done to address this problem?  Increase the property taxes of those residents who already pay their fair share!    

 COMMONSENSE RECOMMENDATIONS:

1.  Expedite the removal of the PSD’s violent and unruly 15 percent by building alternative schools that specialize in remediation and alternative curriculum instead of expanding charters. 

In short, remove and remediate the maladjusted and don’t let civil rights or social justice groups bully policy makers into keeping troubled students in classrooms and continuing to rob our hardworking children of a quality education. Do this by building alternative schools instead of pumping more money into charters (or require charters to service the alternative population).      

2.  Run a grassroots campaign to strengthen the culture of PSD families and communities.

The PSD should fight to instill traditional values into its students and their families.  Community leaders should preach that citizens are the captains of their own ship rather than fostering the idea that they are victims of an unjust system.

In addition, the PSD should: rail against teen pregnancy; promote the importance of two-parent families and call for men to father their children; promote personal responsibility and individual achievement; speak out against misogyny, violence and materialism; encourage students to cooperate with police and law enforcement officials; bring back the abstinence only message in sex education; reinforce speaking Standard American English; launch a campaign to cut down on TV watching, internet surfing and video game playing; promote exercise, good diet and proper nutrition; and make Bill Cosby’s book Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors part of PSD required reading for 9th graders.    

3.  Collect the $500 million owed the PSD by seizing and auctioning-off the property of all Philadelphia residents who do not pay their property taxes.

Tax delinquents, whether rich or poor, should not be allowed to deprive the PSD of money and rob our city’s hardworking children of their educations.  If residents don’t pay their property tax, their homes or businesses should be confiscated by the city and sold at auction.   

Implementing these straightforward commonsense solutions will go a long way in reclaiming Philadelphia’s public schools.