Jennifer O’Brien, a teacher in Paterson, New Jersey is in serious trouble after remarks she made about her first graders on Facebook. The teacher, who’d grown frustrated with her class, went to Facebook to state that some of her students were “future criminals.” The bulk of O’Brien’s students are Black and hispanic.
During her peculiar Facebook post, O’Brien stated that she’d just spent another day in the “blackboard jungle.” She then went on to say “I’m not a teacher, I’m a warden for future criminals.”
Later in the day, O’Brien went back to Facebook to ask why her first graders couldn’t be put into a scared straight program, which allows young people to meet real prison inmates. “They had a scared straight program in school — why couldn’t I bring 1st graders?” she said.
O’Brien’s comments got back to the school board, who suspended her immediately. This week, she appeared before a government school inquisition, who asked her about the situation. That’s when O’Brien told an administrative judge that she wrote the post because six or seven students kept disrupting her lessons and interrupting the children who wanted to learn.
O’Brien claims that one boy hit her, another one hit a child in the class, and that she had filed several disciplinary reports to the principal.
“I was speaking out of frustration to their behavior, just that build up of ‘I don’t know what else to do,’ and I’m actually scared for their futures, for some of them,” O’Brien said. “If you’re hitting your teacher at 6 or 7 years old, that’s not a good path.”
“The reason why she was suspended was because the incident created serious problems at the school that impeded the functioning of the building,” board president Theodore Best said to North Jersey.com. “You can’t simply fire someone for what they have on a Facebook page; but if that spills over and affects the classroom then you can take action.”
While O’Brien’s frustration is certainly understandable, it’s not difficult to see that her comments are rooted in the same racial bias that destroys so many Black and brown children in America’s broken school system. Although Ms. O’Brien would like to believe that these six-year-old children have already routed themselves to prison, the truth is that she herself has incarcerated her kids in the prison of low expectations. Instead of spending her time trying to elevate their minds to become doctors, lawyers and professors, Ms. O’Brien seems to believe that the most she can do for her six-year old’s is keep them out of jail.
I find myself personally disappointed with O’Brien’s remarks because I was one of “those” children: Horrible grades, in detention more than class, and in the principal’s office so much that I knew the names of his wife and kids. The truth was that I wasn’t a dumb child or one who was destined for the penitentiary; I was looking for a teacher who gave a damn about me and didn’t think I was a menace to society. And to be honest, school bored me to death because no one ever explained how a good education can help you make more money (which matters quite a bit to kids who are born to single mothers in the projects).
If Ms. O’Brien can’t handle little Black kids, she doesn’t need to be teaching them. The school district in Paterson would be wise to realize that there are thousands of highly-qualified Black and brown teachers, consultants and counselors who know how to handle Black children. Unfortunately, the overseers of our educational systems would rather have the Black/brown inner city children poisoned by the white female teacher from the suburbs than to have that child exposed to someone like myself or Dr. Marc Lamont Hill at Columbia University (you know, those controversial and “dangerous” Black men). So, in some ways, even as adults, many of us are still being treated like the children in Ms. O’Brien’s class – “at risk Black boys” simply receive a label transformation into “dangerous Black men” when we enter adulthood.
I recall visiting an inner city school in my hometown of Syracuse. The school was 70% Black and latino, yet every single teacher in the seventh grade was a white woman from the suburbs. The school was depressing both inside and out, like a cross between a penitentiary and an insane asylum. I was asked to speak to the children with alleged learning and behavioral disorders. It was interesting to see the shock on the faces of the teachers when they saw how well their Black male students responded to another Black male: They were quiet, respectful, and many of them came to me afterward asking what they should study in college. This outcome was in stark contrast to what their baffled teachers claim they’d seen from the students every other day.
The reality is that educating Black and brown kids is not rocket science. But trying to educate them without sufficient cultural competence is like running a nuclear reactor with a manager from Burger King. Our children have a tremendous amount of potential, but unfortunately, their futures are aborted before they even have a chance to exist. The American school system is probably one of the worst places in the world for Black kids to be educated, and superiors to women like Ms. O’Brien should have a zero tolerance policy for such immature and short-sighted behavior.
There is no such thing as a six-year old convict. We must find a way to give that child a chance.
Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here. To follow Dr. Boyce on Facebook, please visit this link.