Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

How Schools Are ‘Spirit Murdering’ Black and Brown Students

By Bettina L. Love — May 23, 2019 3 min read
BRIC ARCHIVE
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In February of 2019, a positive behavior support coach who was employed by the district in Madison, Wis., allegedly physically assaulted and ripped the hair out of the head of an 11-year-old Black girl. In the same school district, several teachers and substitutes have been fired or resigned earlier this academic year after reports they used racial slurs in the classroom. In the neighboring school district of Middleton, Wis., a school bus driver was fired after the district confirmed he had slapped a Black child. All these incidents in Wisconsin happened within months of each other.

In Binghamton, N.Y., four 12-year-old Black girls reported they were strip-searched at their school for acting too hyper and giddy in January. School officials likely assumed the girls were on drugs because their Black joy was unrecognizable. Of course, no drugs were found and the district denies strip searching the girls. However, the district does admit that asking students to remove some of their clothing is in compliance with a “sobriety check”. The girls’ parents dispute the district’s claims, and a civil lawsuit from the parents and a third-party investigation are still ongoing.

Last Halloween, 14 staff members at Middleton Heights Elementary, 30 miles west of Boise, Idaho, were involved in dressing up as Mexicans and the border wall for Halloween. The district’s superintendent issued a public apology and placed the teachers on paid administrative leave.

More From This Author:

“An Essay for Teachers Who Understand Racism Is Real”

“Teachers, We Cannot Go Back to the Way Things Were

“White Teachers Need Anti-Racist Therapy”

“Dear White Teachers: You Can’t Love Your Black Students If You Don’t Know Them”

“‘Grit Is in Our DNA': Why Teaching Grit Is Inherently Anti-Black”

Sadly, incidents like these fill my social-media timeline on a weekly basis. With regularity, school districts’ spokespersons portray these incidents as isolated events, the work of a few overzealous, culturally insensitive but “good” teachers. These responses never acknowledge how racism is systemic, institutionalized, and structural, or how racism breeds and is maintained by violence.

Physical and psychological attacks on Black and Brown children’s bodies and culture are more than just racist acts by misguided school educators; they are the spirit murdering of Black and Brown children. This type of violence toward children of color is less visceral and seemingly less tragic than physical acts of murder at the hands of White mobs and White self-appointed vigilantes, the shooting of unarmed people of color by police officers in their own homes and communities, or the senseless violence in some Black communities, which are all conditions of racism.

What I am talking about is a slow death, a death of the spirit, a death that is built on racism and intended to reduce, humiliate, and destroy people of color.

Legal scholar Patricia Williams coined the term “spirit murdering” to argue that racism is more than just physical pain; racism robs people of color of their humanity and dignity and leaves personal, psychological, and spiritual injuries. Racism is traumatic because it is a loss of protection, safety, nurturance, and acceptance—all things children need to enter school and learn.

The spirit murdering of Black and Brown children leaves a trail of unanswered questions: How do children learn after being physically assaulted or racially insulted by a person who is supposed to protect them, love them, and teach them? How does a Black or Brown child live, learn, and grow when her spirit is under attack at school, and her body is in danger inside the classroom? How does a parent grapple with this reality? How are children’s imagination and humanity stunted by the notion that they are never safe in their schools because of the color of their skin or the God they pray to? Where does the soul go to heal when school is a place of trauma?

School officials continue to misdiagnose the spirit murdering happening in their schools every day, even in a time when folks are screaming in the streets that Black Lives Matter, demanding immigration rights, calling to end police brutality, standing up to Islamophobia and transphobia, and demanding racial justice. When schools mirror our society’s hate, educational justice becomes out of our reach.

Related Video

In 2016, Bettina L. Love, the author of this Commentary, spoke to Education Week about African-American girls and discipline. Here’s what she had to say:

Follow the Education Week Commentary section on Twitter.

Sign up to get the latest Education Week Commentaries in your email inbox.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2019 edition of Education Week as The ‘Spirit Murdering’ of Black and Brown Children

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education
Reading & Literacy K-12 Essentials Forum Writing and the Science of Reading
Join us for this free event as we highlight and discuss the intersection of reading and writing with Education Week reporters and expert guests.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School Climate & Safety Talking to Students About Tyre Nichols and Police Violence: Ideas From 3 Experts
Educators can't ignore the traumatic effects of such violent events on young people, especially their Black students, experts say.
5 min read
People gather to demand police reforms in the wake of the Tyre Nichols killing outside of the Memphis Police Department Ridgeway Station, Sunday Jan. 29, 2023, in Memphis, Tenn.
Protesters demand reforms outside a police station in Memphis last month, in the wake of Tyre Nichols' beating and death at the hands of five Memphis officers.
Patrick Lantrip/Daily Memphian via AP
School Climate & Safety Chaos, Disruption as More Schools Respond to Hoax 'Swatting' Reports
Faux reports of school shootings disrupted schools in at least three states this week.
5 min read
A police crime scene tape close-up
iStock/Getty Images Plus
School Climate & Safety Founder of Program for At-Risk Youth Says School Shooting Won’t Deter Him
The founder of the educational program in Des Moines was wounded in a shooting that killed two students.
2 min read
Will Keeps, president of Starts Right Here, pictured at his organization in Des Moines, Iowa, July 13, 2021. On Friday, Feb. 3, 2023, Keeps, founder of the Starts Right Here program for at-risk youth in Des Moines, said he will remain “all in on helping kids that are not reachable in so many peoples' eyes” after he was wounded in last month's shooting that killed two of his students.
Will Keeps, founder of the Starts Right Here program for at-risk youth in Des Moines, pictured at his organization in Des Moines, Iowa. Keeps said he will remain “all in on helping kids that are not reachable in so many peoples' eyes” after he was wounded in last month's shooting that killed two of his students.
Zach Boyden-Holmes/The Des Moines Register via AP
School Climate & Safety Letter to the Editor There Are No Quick Fixes to School Shootings
"Unless we get serious about community safety, there will be no school safety," says this letter to the editor.
1 min read
Education Week opinion letters submissions
Gwen Keraval for Education Week