Racism addressed in ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ public dialogue

Need for more such talks apparent

(l-r) Brandt Williams, Mahmoud El-Kati, Todd Axtell, Lyonel Norris, Taska Welters, Shakeer Abdullah, Michael Walker, and Melvin Carter, Jr.
(l-r) Brandt Williams, Mahmoud El-Kati, Todd Axtell, Lyonel Norris, Taska Welters, Shakeer Abdullah, Michael Walker, and Melvin Carter, Jr. (Charles Hallman/MSR News)

An almost two-hour “school-to-prison pipeline” dialogue wasn’t expected to reach a solution, but organizers and attendees both say it was a good starting point for future discussions on the subject.

“It [the time allotted] can go by quickly,” warned Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) News reporter and host Brandt Williams to the estimated 400 people who attended the October 25 “Human Potential” event at the St. Paul’s Fitzgerald Theater. What followed was a back-and-forth talk between the mostly White audience and seven on-stage panelists

Panelists included University of Minnesota Equity and Diversity Assistant Vice President Shakeer Abdullah; St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell; Save Our Sons Founder Melvin Carter, Jr.; Hennepin County Juvenile Judge Lyonel Norris; Michael Walker, who is director of Minneapolis Public Schools’ Black Male Student Achievement Office; Taska Welters of Hennepin County’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative; and history professor emeritus Mahmoud El-Kati.

Many cases that come before his bench “are all young men who look like me,” noted Norris, adding that the juvenile justice system is not that much different from the U.S. justice system overall. “We make it impossible to recover from your mistakes.”

Young Black males are often cast as “scary,” said Norris. “This is an ongoing issue, and it is no more profound [anywhere else] than in our schools. We have criminalized children’s behavior, and much of that criminalization comes to children of color.”

If a child spends one day in juvenile detention, the likelihood of the person later returning to an adult detention center is greater, stated Carter.

The “pipeline” actually starts before third grade, the grade in which educational experts claim Black students start to show a decline in their academic achievement, said Walker.

A White woman in the audience early on boldly urged the panel “to drill down” to the real culprit — racism.

“We as a nation are scared to death in dealing with racism,” concurred El-Kati. “Racism is White supremacy — its ideology is just like communism. All of us in this room are affected in one way or another by White supremacy. No one in America is not affected.”

“We still have the same old school system,” added Abdullah. “The system has been designed to keep things in place.” He added that many Black families deal with both “generational trauma and generational racism,” which must be fully addressed. “If they [teachers] don’t care about our children, get out of the classroom.”

“You can’t change the school system,” stated El-Kati. “Get rid of it and get another one.”

When asked, Chief Axtell defended the presence of police officers in schools. “I firmly believe SROs (school resource officers) make schools safer if it is done right. I want our officers to be a teacher first, a mentor second, and law enforcement third in that order. It’s all about trust — we trust our youth and the youth trust our officers. Without trust, you’re nothing but an occupying force.”

Given the subject matter, it was noticeable that the audience wasn’t as diverse as you’d think. Tarkor Zehn of Brooklyn Park said, “I think [the lack of diversity] is a good thing. We [as Black people] know what the issues are. I feel like the conversations that White folk are having and what Black folk are having are two separate conversations. If we can figure out a way how to channel that in a forum,” she would support that, she said.

“I see a lot of ties” between Native American and Black children in this regard, said Brittany Anderson of Minneapolis, who is studying youth development at the University of Minnesota. “I think this is something that’s often overlooked. It would have been great to have some Native voices on the panel.”

“We can talk about it, but what are we going to do about it? What changes are we making in Minneapolis and St. Paul?” asked Isiah Dennis of St. Paul. “Would I like to see more Blacks? Of course. We should have other people of color to hear other points of view. It affects us all.”

Many audience members stayed around afterwards and continued in “little conversations,” observed event producer Gregory Smith. He told the MSR after seeing the main floor and the balcony full of people, “I was really pleased.” He originally hoped “if we can get 100 people in the room to talk, that would be good. Overall I am really, really pleased.”

Zehn suggested that more talks should be regularly scheduled, perhaps on a monthly basis. “It should be a monthly series with different talking points” on various educational issues such as school suspension, or one of the many other topics brought up during the event. “We have to continue that conversation,” she added.

“We have some work to do,” concluded Smith.


Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.