First grade teacher Jennifer O’Brien of Paterson, N.J. made headlines last week back after referring to her class of mostly Black and Latino kids as “future criminals.” In a status update on her Facebook page O’Brien wrote, “I’m not a teacher – I’m a warden for future criminals,” according to NorthJersey.com. Six hours later she continued, “They had a scared straight program in school—why couldn’t I bring 1st graders?” referring to a school event where sixth graders talked to prison inmates about the consequences of crime.
O’Brien is currently awaiting the school board’s decision on whether or not she will be allowed to keep her job.
O’Brien’s sentiments are not shocking, nor are they uncommon. She just happened to make a bad judgment call in vocalizing her opinion on a social networking site.
As someone who has substitute taught in a 60 percent Latino, 40 percent Black school district, I understand the frustrations of teachers. Students as early as sixth grade can be unruly, rude, uninterested, use foul language, etc. And some teachers are clueless as to how to deal with students whose culture and background is unlike their own. But as frustrated as I’ve been on days where I did more disciplining than actual teaching, my god, I’ve never once thought those children were “future criminals.” Never. What chance do Black and brown students have if by the first grade their teachers already think so poorly of them? It’s one thing to express frustrations of having an overly active or rowdy class. It’s quite another to use the terminology “future criminals.” It’s bad enough the U.S. government builds prisons based on the reading scores of fourth graders. But the teacher responsible for teaching these same students is criminalizing six and seven-year-old kids. O’Brien has to go. Her beliefs are far too dangerous for the classroom where she has already determined her students are destined for failure.
Rev. Kenneth Clayton, the president of the local branch of the NAACP who was called to testify, called O’Brien’s comments stupid and said they “help us realize again that racism has not been erased from our country.”
“I know that children can be testy and tedious and all those things, but to say in first grade there that you’re a warden for them, that’s reprehensible … if a teacher or any adult leader could look at children like that in the first grade and think that, then the children are doomed,” Clayton went on to say.