I got my first lesson about race in Lockport shortly after I moved here four years ago. I was riding my bike on South Street. A young boy, maybe 7 years old and black, yelled out to me, “Look out there is a car behind you.” I waved and thanked him. Then a few seconds later I realized that what he had actually said was, “Look out, there is a cop behind you.” I turned and looked and sure enough there was a Lockport Police cruiser just behind me. A white child that age would not have offered up the same warning.
Here is a hard fact about our community: The experience of being black in Lockport is not the same thing as being white in Lockport. Day-to-day encounters with prejudice are different. Interactions with the police are different. And being a black student in our schools is also different. This is why it so profoundly important for the leaders of the Lockport school district to do a much better job at listening to our black families.
Unfortunately, that is not what the superintendent and the school board are doing. Here are two examples, voiced again on Monday night at a black community forum I attended at a west end church.
One involves the My Brother’s Keeper program, an initiative started by President Obama to target support to black boys and young men, one of the most at-risk groups in the country. The Lockport district applied for and won a $500,000 grant from the New York State Education Department to start a My Brother’s Keeper program in our schools. That’s fine, but the district never bothered to consult with any black parents or students about what kind of program we should have. In fact, it seems like the district tried to keep the whole thing a secret.
How on Earth does an entirely-white district administration think it is OK to design a program for black students without ever bothering to consult with the black community? According to state guidelines the district has to work with local community groups and others to even qualify for the funds. Who did they tell the state they spoke to?
Members of Lockport’s black community have also raised concerns about the school district’s plan to put armed guards inside the schools. I understand that for many people that might just seem like a smart safety measure, like that slogan: “The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But if you spend any time listening to black families here, you realize that many have a very different view on that issue.
Black youth here live in an era of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Michael Brown and a long list of other innocent black people killed by police. They live in a community where a black man, Troy Hodges, the parent of one of our students, was killed while in the hands of white police here two years ago this week. That wound runs deep and is not even close to healing.
For many black students, a guy with a gun in your school’s hallway does not make you feel safer, it makes you feel threatened. As one student, Marcel Dean, told the paper recently at a protest against the armed guards, “I’ve seen a lot on the news, police killing black people. They don’t know how to handle the situation. They’re always pulling their gun out like that’s a solution. That’s not a solution.”
Every parent in Lockport, of every race, wants our children to be safe at school. But we need to recognize that what seems “safe” to some seems like a threat and daily intimidation to others. What we hear more often from our black community on the issue of school safety is about the need for more counselors and mental health support, not more guns.
The original sin of the Lockport district’s $2.7 million facial recognition debacle was the sin of arrogance. It was about a handful of people working on Beattie Avenue who saw no need to listen to anyone who might have a different view. We saw the fiasco that came from that (the district blew a fortune on a system it can’t even legally turn on). District administrators and board members need to start listening to the community, and our black families especially. And that isn’t about giving people three minutes at the end of a two-hour board meeting.
Earlier this month local black leaders extended an invitation to Superintendent Michelle Bradley and other district administrators to join them for Monday’s community forum at Latter Rain Cathedral. Mayor Michelle Roman made time to go. Board member Renee Cheatham made time to go. Not a single district administrator bothered to come.
A district leadership that refuses to listen to our black families, that can’t make time to meet them in a church on a Monday night, is a district leadership running willfully blind to the experience of a part of our community that is consistently ignored until it makes some serious noise. That noise is coming, and it is time for the district administration and board to start listening.
Jim Shultz is the founder and executive director of the Democracy Center and a father and grandfather in Lockport. He can be reached by email at: JimShultz@democracyctr.org.