The Internet is all abuzz about the Milwaukee teacher who out of “frustration”, cut her first grade student’s, Lamya Cammon’s, hair. According to the teacher, the child, who sported long french braids, was constantly “playing with her hair.” She asked Lamya several times to stop twiddling with her hair. But Lamya evidently would not. The teacher eventually apologized for the haircut saying that she was frustrated. According to Lamya, the teacher asked her to come to her desk for candy. When she got there, the teacher used classroom scissors to cut about 3 inches off of Lamya’s braid. The student returned to her desk and cried as her onlooking classmates laughed.
Was this acceptable behavior for a teacher? Was it racist?
From a legal standpoint, the teacher assaulted this student. Cutting her hair was “an intentional act by one person that creates an apprehension in another of an imminent harmful or offensive contact.” Assault is punishable by law. “Frustration,” as far as I know, has never been an adequate defense to this crime. The District Attorney’s office looked at this case and decided not to press charges. Instead, the teacher was issued a $175.00 ticket for disorderly conduct. Interesting decision. A disorderly conduct citation does not ruin a teaching career like a termination or an arrest could.
From a professional prespective, when a teacher is unable to control his or her emotions in order to refrain from an act of aggression against a student, that teacher needs to be removed from his or her post. Who keeps a teacher in a classroom who has too little self-control to stop themselves from legally actionable activity? When a similar hair-cutting incident occurred in Houston, Texas last year, the teacher was not frustrated or overly stressed (as the Milwaukee teacher’s union claimed this teacher was). The Houston teacher decided that the child just needed a haircut. She repeatedly expressed to the student that she did like her hair. Thus, the Houston teacher cut off over 7 inches from the head of a 14-year-old child who kept her hair long for religious reasons. The student’s mother had never even cut her daughter’s hair because according to their Pentacostal beliefs, the student made a promise to God not to cut it. Her hair had never been cut since birth. Still, this teacher thought she knew better. She cut it and laughed. By doing so, she showed her disrespect for the child, her family and their religious beliefs. She was, as a result, suspended from her teaching duties until the case could be further investigated.
In the Milwaukee case, the child was removed from the offending teachers class. The teacher continues to teach. I think the way this case was resolved is outrageous. The teacher was beyond wrong and has not been called to answer for her deserved punishment both under law and under her professional code of ethics.
But were her actions racist? Honestly, I believe that we are looking at a classic case of institutional racism. We are looking at a teacher, District Attorneys and school administrators who apply a disparate value system to a group of students who are different than them and of lower status in their minds. I hate to use the old standby measure, but here it is. If this were a White child whose hair was cut, would this teacher still be teaching? If she were confronted by a White mother, would she have been so condescending and cavelier about the incident? Would that White mother’s cry for justice been handled with greater authority? I honestly have to assert that it likely would have. This scenario would probably not have made the news because the teacher would have been fired and possibly tried and convicted. She would, at leas,t be removed from her post and required to attend some anger management counseling.
Our black children are so devalued in the world. Even if you can get over the fact that the teacher “lost it”, can you justify in your head the callousness with which she decided to punish this 7-year-old child? Our kids are viewed so often as dangerous and out of control. At the tender of 7, like Lamya, our kids are not viewed as dangerous…yet. But there is an effort to steer them away from their inevitable fate as violent criminals. So White reaction to their actions are so overboard. Just as more Black kids that enter the criminal justice system are tried as adults than their White counterparts, more Black kids in schools are given harsher punishments and special ed. designations because teachers and administrators feel that the actions of Black kids warrant extreme measures. I’m not making this up. The statistics showing the differences in punishments, criminal justice referrals and alternative school placements for Black kids (especially boys) compared with White kids doing the same behaviors is well known.
So was the teacher acting out of racism? Yes, everyone was acting out of their socially learned perceptions about the place and value of this 7-year-old hair twirler. She needed to be taught a lesson– to be made an example of–even though the only risk of hair twirling is that it is super-annoying to the teacher.
This incident is just another example of how far we’ve NOT come. From a parenting perspective, this is also why we must be a conspicuous presence in the schools our kids attend. I have had some crazy things done to and said to my kids. But never by a teacher I have connected or had conversations with about my expectations for my child. This is just how it works. If you want your child to be treated decently, you need to have a face-to-face with all of the teachers that work with him or her. That way, you are very real to them, and not some stereotype that they can blatantly disregard. The common stereotype of the Black parent in schools is that you a too busy working a menial job to care about what their kids are doing. If you are invisible in the school, you ARE that parent in the minds of your child’s teacher.
If you’d like to read a great discussion of what others in the Black community and otherwise are saying about this incident, check out this post by the fabulous Nordette on Blogher.