Volume:9, Issue: 2

Sep. 30, 2017

A Compass that Points Right
Goodhew, Claudia [about]

KEYWORDS: justice, social reconstructionism, racial disparity, education, holistically, children

ABSTRACT: This paper explores the relationship between school and the law, and its interconnectivity with social justice.  It aims to show that school and law are the foundation for which our society is built - it is a foundation that is based on equality.  It suggests that schools are morally responsible to take heed of social reconstructionism, and that courts are ethically obligated to eradicate racial disparity.  Moreover, educators should approach children holistically, as the benefits will certainly be greater than just nurturing the mind.  As this is a personal paper, it reflects on my experiences and what I refer to be my moral compass.  My compass is aimed “to the right,” that is, it points me in the direction to do what’s compassionate and equitable.


I am guided not by religious beliefs, but by a moral compass that points right; that is, it points to doing what is “right”, compassionate and equitable.  I live my life with the awareness of the injustice all around us, but my actions must endeavor for social justice.  My love for children calibrates my moral compass and guides me when I feel tired.  My hope that the next generation can be better than the last makes me believe that even the unattainable is attainable.

For the last twelve-years I have worked with children who are sexually or physically abused.  Some children are mere months old, others I’ve seen multiple times over the years.  A person cannot be the same after seeing children fighting for their lives, anguished faces trying to survive trauma, or a child whispering that they don’t want to be raped anymore.  I have cried behind closed doors, willing an infant to survive from being shaken too violently.  I have wept when a mother failed her most basic role as a protector by allowing men to sexually abuse her young daughter for money.  I have yelled and cursed our criminal justice system when it blatantly exposes inequalities, when money will let a defendant walk to freedom.  I’m angry.  I try to do right for those children.

Injustice exists in our courts, as it does in most every thread of our society.  I didn’t care before.  I was a law-abiding citizen who had no reason to step into a courthouse, that is, until I was an advocate for abused children.  I care now.  I care that parents who can afford high-priced lawyers are more likely to have a shoddy investigation or no charges brought against them, their guilt thick as molasses weighed heavily on me.  I care that those parents are likely to be white.  I care that evidence points to racial differences in rates of cases opened for investigation, and that children of color are more likely to be removed from home (Racial Disproportionality, n.d.).  A white defendant deserves no less punishment than a black defendant, but it happens.  I care that socio-economic status immediately biases child protective social workers and detectives – “they’re rich, the house is clean, the children look well kept.”  But when those workers leave and nightfall’s upon us, those children are locked into dog crates to sleep, food withheld as punishment.  I’m angry.  I try to do right for those children.

One girl, DeeDee, affected me when I least expected it, but most needed it.  Barely eight-years old, she was a victim of repeated rape by her stepfather; sadly, not an unusual case in my line of work.  During her forensic interview, her body looked defeated and her soul sounded crushed.  Barely audible, shoulders hunched over, eyes unable to make contact, she described the abuse she faced over the last four years – repeated rape at night, multiple times a week, while her mother called her a liar whenever she grasped for her lifeline.  As often happens, my jaw clenches, my head shakes in disapproval, my sigh heavy in the air.  I’m glad that she cannot see me sitting behind the one-way mirror.  Because despite what has happened to her, she loves her stepfather and mother.  They provide her a home, conditional love, and the only life she’s known.

DeeDee was tough.  After a year of bumping along the court calendar, we were set for trial.  DeeDee was nine years old.  She assured me she was ready, that she could face her rapist in court and tell a courtroom full of strangers how she was brutally raped for four-years.  With no fewer than twenty-five strangers and her rapist in the courtroom, nine-year old DeeDee slowly walked to the front of the room and testified.  Her small body was dwarfed by the large chair she sat in; feet dangling, unable to touch the floor.  An American flag draped behind her, as if to remind the audience that this is justice in America.  This vulnerable nine-year old was able to do what many adults cannot – speak her most private, unimaginable horrors to an audience of strangers.  She is the reason Mr. Sampson is in prison today.

DeeDee’s testimony and this trial isn’t what affected me.  Unbelievably, I’ve sat in many trials like this, seen many girls like DeeDee.  What affected me would come years later, in the form of an email.  DeeDee contacted me to say ‘thank you’ and to tell me that she would be going to college at the University of Southern California to study physics.  You see, just when I felt hopeless, thinking that evil permeated every part of my community, I was reminded that the deepest wounds can heal.  With the help of her biological father, skilled counselors and persistent teachers, DeeDee defied the odds and the expectations that were unfairly placed upon this poverty stricken, rape victim whose mother betrayed her.  As Wirzba says in Way of Love, “when people invest in helping others discover and realize their talents, even those people once thought not to have talents worth developing, the whole world benefits” (2016, p. 168).  Because of DeeDee, I want to keep doing right for children.

What made DeeDee break free of the chains that bound her since birth, while others that face a similar fate merely succumb to the expectations that are unfairly placed on them?  DeeDee was believed.  “They tell you to speak the truth and if you do, they're offended. They're hypocrites: they say one thing to your face, and another behind your back. If they don't like someone” (Korczak, n.d.).  I wish that all adults can simply believe children when they speak of such atrocious acts, but they don’t; likely because they can’t imagine such horrible things beings done to a child, or are too afraid of losing the person that provides them shelter and food.  Some guard the secret, some attempt to persuade the child it didn’t happen, some try to tell the child to “just move on.”  Adults tell children they should always tell the truth, but when it makes us feel uncomfortable, we don’t know how to handle the truth.  Additionally, DeeDee overcame her barriers because her teachers treated her holistically.  It was about bringing back her empathy, showing her beauty in nature, recalibrating her moral compass, and healing her soul.  Her heart, head and hands were nurtured simultaneously, just as Sukhomlinsky would want (Cockerill, 2016).  DeeDee would not have succeeded so triumphantly had her school only nourished her head.  She needed to be surrounded by people that nourished her soul.

We need to constantly strive for a more just nation.  “Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (Lincoln, 1863).  I hold sacred that these are a United States of America and that every child deserves equal opportunity.  Education is that opportunity.  Aligned with educating children holistically, we must also engage them to view social issues as something they are responsible for.  The philosophy of social reconstructionism aims to correct our social issues of racism, poverty, or violence (Lynch, 2016).  The more children care, the more they engage.  It’s about igniting that desire to pursue equality in every aspect of life.  Teachers can do their part by nurturing provocative discussions in class in order to generate deeper thought and understanding (Pace, 2015, p. 45).  They can capitalize on opportunities to discuss current events that point out inequalities, whether about poverty or racism.  Guide children to care.

Another entity in our society that’s charged with justice is our courts.  Sadly, our courts have not traditionally done well to serve justice equitably.  Slowly, our courts are catching on to the ideas of social reconstructionism with innovative programs aimed at counseling or family intervention.  Regardless, there is still a high percentage of racial disparity in our courts.  Some startling facts to consider: one in six Latino men born in 2001 can expect to go to prison, the racial gap between white and black youth in detention increased by 15%, and almost six-thousand youth are incarcerated in adult prisons (Rover, 2016).

We need to hold true that education is our equalizer.  Education, starting as early as pre-school, needs to be equitable for all.  We cannot accept that the rich will move into good school districts, while the poor remain in underachieving schools.  We cannot accept that the rich will receive a quality preschool education, while the poor receive none.  Until we fight for every child, our courts will continue to see more children from poverty, typically minorities, and perpetuate the cycle of racial disparity. 

Teachers focused on holistic education, and schools solidly grounded by social reconstructionism, can do their part to help dispel racial disparity.  Innovative programs should be explored, like the one offered at Seattle’s Leschi elementary school.  Rather than squirming at conversations on equity, administrators embraced it and felt obligated to do something about it.  Leschi, a racially diverse, public institution, has successfully implemented a Montessori and contemporary blended program (Cornwell, 2017).  While the program initially drew only white students into the Montessori program, teachers noticed and did something about it.  As a result, the Montessori and contemporary programs were blended, with students now in both programs (Cornwell, 2017).  The Montessori program has been successful with students, particularly low-income students who started the school year behind their peers.  Imagine - a racially diverse school where students get equal opportunity!

Like Leschi elementary, our juvenile courts need to reform in order to eliminate racial disparity.  No longer should our juvenile court judges have blindfolds on to the injustice parading around the courthouse.  Reform should start with the prosecutor’s office.  Some steps they can take are: reducing juvenile incarceration, encouraging alternative education, coordinating with community agencies or mandating counseling.  Reform means utilizing these avenues prior to any charges being filed, thus stigmatizing a minority with having a criminal record.  A strong support system for families is absolutely necessary.  This support system can include juvenile probation counselors, social workers and community agencies. 

Even before the prosecutor’s office receives a case, police departments can do its part in eliminating racial disparity.  It means strengthening the ties between the police and community.  It means talking about the implicit bias that officers have and training officers how to recognize that bias.  Most importantly, it means getting officers into communities and engaging with its members – attending cultural fairs, school events, or community discussions.  Look into the eyes of Black, Latino, or Asian children and dare to care.

I don’t blissfully write this with naivety, believing that I can eradicate poverty, racism, mental illness, or hate.  I write this with love and hope for children.  I write this believing in the power of a community to pave a new path, to give two options to a child, rather than a singular path that was predetermined at birth by economic status.  I write this knowing that my love for children will be rejected, challenged, and will waiver.  Regardless, I have an obligation to be that beacon of light that guides them through darkness, despite the fog that might dampen that light.  Because of all else, love is at the core of what I do. 

I have been deeply affected by the ugliness of our world, the intentional pain inflicted on children, the despair of parents and the unfairness of our judicial system.  Being a witness to this, combined with my privilege, has bound my life to service of justice.  I cannot ignore the desire of a marginalized person or the pain of a hopeless person.  I cannot sit silently, thinking that the problem is too big to solve.  I am inspired by our democracy, the foundation that we are all equal. 

Now more than ever, I see threads of social justice intertwined in every aspect of our lives; children being the needle that stitches those threads together.  We can, and must, guide children to believe in the power of equality.  We must treat children holistically, as their parts cannot be separated.  Educators, police, prosecutor’s, and judges, have the ability to free children from the realms of poverty, to challenge the bias that society imposes on the poor and minorities.  We can expose children to minorities who have succeeded, females who push against gender stereotypes, or the rich who have climbed the deep hole out of poverty.  We can forgive a black child standing in front of a judge, accepting that they need guidance, education or counseling.  We can ask ourselves why we feel compelled to pull over the Latino man, not the white man, that ran the red light.  We can challenge social norms and advocate for gender neutral bathrooms, so that someone can comfortably do what heterosexuals don’t hesitate.  We can dare to try something new in school.

School and law – these are the bricks for which our foundation is built.  We need to care for our children as passionately as Janusz Korczak did.  We need to value our land and people as Abraham Lincoln did.  Every educator needs a DeeDee to remind them why they went into education, to give them hope and purpose.  Educators must help guide students to aim their compass to the right; in doing so, everyone is lifted up.    


References

  1. Cockerill, A. (2016, October 3). Vasily Sukhomlinksy: The teacher who changed the world. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/conversations/vasily-sukhomlinsky-educating-the-heart/7878410
  2. Cornwell, P. (2017, April 2). At Leschi Elementary, equity conversations are common – among   teachers, parents and, increasingly, students.  Retrieved from http://www.seattletimes.com/education-lab/at-leschi-elementary-equity-conversations-are-common-among-teachers-parents-and-increasingly-students/
  3. Korczak, Janusz. How to Love a Child. Retrieved from http://www.januszkorczak.ca/legacy/3_How%20to%20Love%20a%20Child.pdf
  4. Lincoln, A. (1863, November 19). The Gettysburg Address. Retrieved from http://www.greatamericandocuments.com/speeches/lincoln-gettysburg.html
  5. Lynch, M. (2016, November 3). Philosophies of Education. Retrieved from http://www.theedadvocate.org/philosophies-education-3-types-student-centered-philosophies/
  6. Pace, J. (2015). The Charged Classroom. New York, NY: Routledge.
  7. Racial Disproportionality in Washington State. Chapter 2: Literature Review. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.dshs.wa.gov/sites/default/files/CA/acw/documents/RaceDispro2.pdf
  8. Rover, J. (2016, April 2). Racial Disparities in Youth Commitments and Arrests. Retrieved from http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/racial-disparities-in-youth-commitments-and-arrests/
  9. Wirzba, N. (2016). Way of Love. New York, NY: HarperOne.




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