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A Texas Principal and the Casual Criminalization of Race and Disability in Schools

School officials shouldn't joke about calling the cops on vulnerable children. They should also stop treating non-compliance as criminal.

In mid-April, a Houston-area principal at Ponderosa Elementary School was talking with three of her employees about a disabled black student who reportedly sometimes tries to leave the campus grounds. Principal Shanna Swearingen (who is white) reportedly told the other staff that, next time, "We won't chase him. We will call the police and tell them he has a gun so they can come faster."

The quote made its way to the school's Facebook page, and a local firestorm erupted. Later, the principal apologized, and the school district put out a statement condemning the comment, but also calling it a "jest."

Swearingen's "joke," if that's what it was, tells a story about the state-sanctioned killing of one of her students. It's good that there's no evidence she actually was planning on calling the police, but it's also a sign of the ways that the criminalization of disability and race permeates our schools.

As we've been covering at Pacific Standard, school can be a dangerous place for disabled children, children of color, and especially disabled children of color. They experience both legal and illegal abuse, including being placed in dangerous and painful restraints or placed in solitary confinement-like seclusion settings. They also routinely run the risk of being treated like criminals. Sometimes, disabled children get criminalized for routine non-compliant behavior. In other cases, their atypical behavior linked to their disability—and thus evidence of their status as a member of a legally protected class—gets treated as a crime. For years, report after report from governmental, academic, and activist groups have been documenting the specific risks that children like this boy in Texas face in schools.

Of course, it's not just schools. Calling the police on African Americans is no laughing matter, as ought to be clear to anyone who follows the news, especially if your call includes a claim about a firearm. Stephon March was killed while holding a cell phone that police allege they mistook for a gun. Danny Ray Thomas (a Houston man, whose story would likely be known to Swearingen), was shot and killed by police while unarmed and experiencing a mental-health crisis with his pants around his ankles.

Moreover, people call police on black children and adults for no valid reason all the time. Two men at a Starbucks in Philadelphia last month were arrested after a manager called 911 after they'd been the store for just two minutes. A golf club's management called the police on five black women who were "golfing too slowly" in the eyes of the club officials. Last week, someone called police on a former staffer to President Barack Obama, alleging him as a possible armed burglar because he was moving boxes from a rental truck into his new apartment. And those are just recent stories.

Swearingen might also recall Tamir Rice, of course. His name rarely comes up in the context of disability, but like this child in Texas, he spent time in a "special needs classroom," as his teacher lovingly remembered. He was killed by police when someone called 911 on him.

The point is not that police encounters with black civilians, especially those multiply vulnerable due to disability and poverty, are always lethal or even violent, but rather that each encounter has a greater potential to escalate.

I reached out over email to Mikki Kendall, a prominent black writer and someone with whom I've often talked about the problems of special education and racism in American society. Kendall tells me: "I am deeply concerned that [Swearingen] thinks police brutality is a joke. The idea that she is comfortable with the risk of a child's death is appalling. ... Especially in light of her ignorance of not only the school-to-prison pipeline, but also the increased risk of violence faced by neuro-atypical children, her comment is bordering on the obscene." As for people who think it's just a bad joke, Kendall would like to remind them that the punchline is violent and often lethal.

Over the last few years, I've been thinking a lot about a long Twitter thread by former English professor Jason Steed, about the fraudulent basis behind any attempt to ward off criticism of hateful speech by claiming the speaker was "just joking." Steed, who wrote his dissertation on jokes and Judaism in American fiction, was responding to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, who suggested during the campaign that someone might shoot Hillary Clinton if she threatened the Second Amendment. Steed writes about humor as a social act, arguing that, "We use humor to bring people into—or keep them out of—our social groups." Jokes also serve as a way to bring or maintain ideas within social groups, hence racist jokes perpetuate racist ideas. As Steed writes, "The racist joke-teller might say "just joking"—but this is a defense to the out-group. He doesn't have to say this to the in-group. This is why we're never 'just joking.' To the in-group, no defense of the joke is needed; the idea conveyed is accepted/acceptable."

Maybe this incident at Ponderosa Elementary really is an isolated one. Maybe the principal has never made such a comment before. Maybe her school bucks the trend by being especially nurturing and protective toward disabled children, especially those who are non-white. I hope so. In the meantime, a child has been dehumanized after his principal made a quip among co-workers about state violence. What happens next in the principal's future at the school should be led by the child and his family in conversation with their community. No matter what that turns out to be, though, no one should defend this fantasy of violence with "just joking."