Educators Weaponizing Authority: Jabari Talbot Arrest and the School to Prison Pipeline

Across the country, people have been engaging in intense debates about the 11 year old student Jabari Talbot in Florida who was arrested for not saluting the standing up during the Pledge of Allegiance. Of course, there are lots of debates going on about what actually led to the arrest. People are saying he wasn’t actually arrested for not saluting the flag but arrested for refusing to leave the room and disobeying orders of the resource officer, At the end of the day, the semantics are irrelevant. The challenge we have today, particularly for those who are in the education field, is seeing how educators are weaponizing their position, whether they are regular assigned teachers or substitute teachers. We saw other similar cases like this in terms of substitute teachers challenging students. For example, the teacher in North Carolina who told children that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. killed himself, that they would be going to jail because they’re dressed like gangsters, and that they’re not real Christians if they don’t really support President Donald Trump. The list goes on.

What we see here with the Talbot situation is that it’s the latest example of what people call the preschool to prison pipeline or the cradle to prison pipeline, championed by the Children’s Defense Fund and Marian Wright Edelman. The idea is that situations happening in our schools are preparing our students for a life of incarceration, particularly our African American students and particularly our African American male students. Numerous studies have shown that in many of our schools there’s a correlation between special education and incarceration or at least involvement with the judicial system. They have also shown that some of the conditions in which we put our students in school are actually doing nothing but preparing them for doing a prison bid where they’re sitting around all day, not really being challenged intellectually and being punished for basically trying to engage themselves in in classrooms.

It was JAY Z who said:

I felt so inspired about what my teacher said
Said I’d either be dead or be a reefer head
I don’t know if that’s how you’re supposed to talk to kids
When all I tried to do was speak in class.

JAY Z, who has a sixth grader, was scoring as a senior in high school on citywide exams, dropped out of high school to sell drugs because the school system failed him. He left the supposedly safe environment of school and went down a trajectory that would put him in confrontation with law enforcement. For example, Laquan McDonald was a 17-year old male who was slain in Chicago by the Chicago Police Department. The killer put himself in between himself and Laquan and then said his life was in danger ad then shot him 16 times, including while he was still on the ground and the smoke form the bullets coming out of his body (other officers called for a taser). Laquan McDonald was such a troubled child that a former teacher of his said she feared what would happen in a world that abandoned him.

Going back to Talbot, there is again a correlation, particularly as it relates to zero tolerance policies. We have a student who says he refuses to salute the flag because he calls it racist. The teacher tells him if he doesn’t like America, he can go back to Africa and then he’s asked to leave the room, even though it’s not illegal to not stand for the flag. If it’s not illegal to not stand for the pledge of allegiance, then he should have never been asked to leave the room in the first place. So from that point on, the teacher weaponized her authority, leading to the boy’s arrest and a potential criminal record, whereas the teacher who instigated this gets no penalty other than not being able to teach in that school system.

Some argue that the teacher should have been arrested for trying to force the student to do something that he legally didn’t have to do. But this teacher gets to go on with her life while the student now has the potential of a police record at the age of 11 for defending his rights for standing up for himself. Luckily JAY Z and TEAM ROC intervened and got the charges dropped. This is a problem and we see this in many situations and even if you look at some of your schools, you will see sometimes that some of the language that is used to most described African Americans who don’t do what they’re told is they’re being insubordinate, they don’t follow the rules, they are not listening, and they don’t comply. These types of behaviors and this terminology corresponds with language that is also used in our criminal justice system.

So whether you feel Talbot should have stood for the Pledge of Allegiance or not is really irrelevant. What you should be frustrated with is that through this incident, through the arrogance of this teacher and through her ignorance of the law, she almost added another child to the preschool to prison pipeline and that should disturb us all. There are many teachable moments from this. Maybe in your schools you’re not having kids arrested, but I have seen students taken out of class and disciplined maybe just from writing on a desk and some are getting expelled. We’ve seen people like Glenn Singleton who wrote Courageous Conversations About Race, who talks about over at one point over 5,000 black boys getting expelled every year from preschool.

Under President Obama’s administration, efforts were made to challenge discipline issues in schools but the Trump administration ended it. The main issue relates to disparities and discipline. This is real. We’re sacrificing our children, we’re making them feel like they don’t really belong. I talked about JAY Z and Talbot is the same age as JAY Z was when he was testing as a senior in high school. We are wasting talent in America. We are not valuing children as they should be valued and this is just the latest example. We need to support the work of so many working actively to keep our students in the classroom as well as engaged in the classroom through culturally relevant instruction. We can, and we must do better for the sake of our children.

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