We’ve all seen viral videos of racist violence on social media. Sometimes—like in the recent case of a black student I work with who was assaulted by white staff at her school—these disturbing incidents even make it onto the national news.
But what happens to the victims after the attention fades? In a school, and a school system, that disproportionately punishes black students, the answer may not surprise you.
In the case of the student I work with as an educational advocate, the video shows a fourteen-year-old girl pinned to the ground by an adult man in an outdoor area of Ponchatoula Junior High School, which is located in a rural parish north of New Orleans. The man, a white school staff member, yells, “You gonna be still or I’m gonna stomp your ass on this concrete!” Another white staff member grabs the student by her feet and pulls her by the legs.
The school has since “removed” the staff involved in the assault, though officials have not clarified what this removal means, citing privacy laws regarding employee disciplinary action. “We want to ensure that due process is provided for all involved—both students and employees,” school principal Melissa Stilley said in a statement.
The school also has yet to spell out any concrete steps it will take toward improvement. From the outside, it seems the only concrete actions taken since the assault have been against the student and her family.
After the incident happened at the end of March, the student’s mother, Althea Abron, requested that the school cover her daughter’s medical expenses for migraines they thought could be related to the assault.
In mid-April, Abron was arrested and kept in jail over the Easter holiday with a $6,000 bail. Two of her children, including the fourteen-year-old, were also detained at the time, handcuffed and put in the back of a police car. While the daughter was let go, and Abron was eventually bailed out, Abron’s other child, a teenage son, remains in detention.
Officials specified that the arrest was unrelated to the school assault—Abron was booked on charges of identity theft, marijuana possession, and child endangerment. A police detective told the family’s lawyer that the fourteen-year-old was arrested because of “some actions she took during the arrest of her mother.” Abron tells me she begged the police to let her daughter put on her shoes and clothes, since she was only wearing pajamas.
“It is saddening that after such a horrific attack of a teenage girl by those in positions of trust, that the victim would be further victimized by being arrested.”
“She’s already been through so much,” Abron tells me when we talk on the phone in early May. “I could do nothing to help my own children.”
The video went viral just days before one of the parish’s largest annual events, the Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival, which draws visitors—and a welcome economic infusion—from all over the state to the area.
“It is saddening that after such a horrific attack of a teenage girl by those in positions of trust, that the victim would be further victimized by being arrested,” Abron’s lawyer, John S. Williams, tells The Progressive in an email. “Currently, there is no proof of retaliatory action nor intent but I implore reasonable minds to scrutinize the actions of our government in this case and come to their own conclusions.”
Abron tells me that because of her arrest, she lost her job and and is now homeless.
Tangipahoa Parish School System, where Ponchatoula Junior High is located, has a history of disproportionately punishing black students. Though they make up 47 percent of the district’s student body, they comprise 72 percent of out-of-school suspensions and 78 percent of expulsions.
State law in Louisiana requires every school provide positive behavior supports for students, such as group counseling and mentorship, and carry out restorative justice processes for students to talk out their conflicts and prevent fights in the first place.
Louisiana law also outlines safe and appropriate techniques for restraining children when when there are no other options.
But, as the Ponchatoula Junior High incident shows us, this is not enough.
We need civil rights protections in schools, along with a commitment to providing better learning experiences for minority students, students with disabilities, and poor and homeless students.
Unfortunately, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—who is also an advocate for publicly funded, privately operated schools that run with little outside accountability—has been rolling back the very protections this student needed.
Unfortunately, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has been rolling back the very protections this student needed.
Following the February 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the Trump Administration established a Federal Commission on School Safety, appointing DeVos chair. But instead of recommending we improve school safety by funding more social workers and mental health professionals, the commission has pushed a false narrative that schools can be protected from mass shootings by repealing Obama-era civil rights protections for black and brown students and students with disabilities. These protections, issued in 2014, were meant to address the national problem of students of color receiving harsher punishment at school.
So how do we support students and families and schools after incidents like this one? We want schools to be welcoming, developmentally appropriate, non-biased institutions of education. How do we get there with all of the roadblocks in the way at the local, state, and national levels?
I ask Abron this question after we posted a GoFundMe page to raise $6,000 for her bail. We only raise $1000.
“People need to care enough to educate themselves on racism,” Abron tells me. “What if it were your child?
But the mother of three hopes that the school will take this opportunity to look at itself and make real changes.
“It’s not rocket science,” she says. “just treat everybody equally and fairly.”