Many of my children, though only four or five years old, have already dealt with difficult situations such as foster care, parental incarceration, and homelessness. While all of these issues can effect a child’s perspective and ability to trust others, parental incarceration recently posed a challenge for me as a teacher with a responsibility to educate children about the positive role of police in our society.
Last week, we held Career Day at our school. To prepare, we discussed possible jobs and as a class composed a letter welcoming the Career Day participants. During our pre-writing discussion, I asked the students how they felt about Career Day. Tyrone responded, “I feel angry because the police gonna come and lock everyone up.” His comment reminded me of an earlier comment from Aniyah that also expressed distrust of the police and suggested we physically hurt the police so they “won’t do that anymore.”
I began to explain the reasons why people go to jail and emphasized the positive role of police officers in making us safe. I couldn’t help but glance at two of my other students who currently have a parent in jail. They didn’t say anything, but I wondered what might be going on in their heads. “Is my mommy wrong? Is she making people unsafe? Is it a good thing that the police took my daddy away from me? If the police are good, is my daddy bad?”
As I considered these thoughts, I began to backpedal. I talked briefly about people making mistakes and responded to a question about everyone going to jail “for life” by stressing that many times people in jail get to leave and be with their families again. I then wondered, for Tyrique - who will be fifteen when his mother gets out and is just developing a sense of time - what is the real difference between a life apart from his mother and ten years spent apart from her during his crucial childhood years?
I am aware of the sensitivity of these issues and the larger reality of mixed attitudes toward the police in inner city neighborhoods. What is not clear is how to deal with them in a way that will both preserve strong ties between children and their families and define the police as a source of protection for the people in those neighborhoods.