Is Your Child “Violent?” Why the answer to this question may save your child’s life.

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

Audre Lorde, Human Rights Activist 

Schools are telling us year after year that children are becoming increasingly more violent. In fact, they use this to justify restraint, seclusion, mass suspensions, expulsions, and zero tolerance policies. Many children have the word ascribed to them in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) documents as early as Kindergarten. Yes, we are expected to believe armies of violent 5 and 6-year-olds roam the halls of our schools. Violence, along with words, like “challenging,” “disruptive,” “mal-adaptive,” “lacks empathy,” “defiant,” “vandalism,” “dangerous,” and “aggressive” are routinely used to describe children. Sounds absurd, right? These words are disproportionately used on neuro-divergent and black children, especially boys. Any mother of a black, brown, autistic, or ADHD child has heard these words used about our children often. Those of us who are neuro-divergent or in a marginalized race hear the negative messaging about us not just at school, but in media, film, and from every imaginable source, we are bombarded with these vicious stereotypes.

So you might ask, so what? They’re just words, right? How else can one refer to kicking (violent), screaming (disruptive), or throwing chairs (vandalism)? Think about it. 

Are these words not all descriptives of criminal behaviors when exercised by adults? In fact, many of them are part of criminal codes for which one can be incarcerated. For the sake of avoiding prolixity, I’m not going to discuss all the words used to justify aversive consequences against marginalized children in this piece but will dissect just one. (Don’t worry, more is coming to address the others.) Attaching criminal behaviors to children is a tool that harms and marginalizes, and impacts their lives and place them in grave danger, not just in school, but their entire lives. Words matter.

Violence. What it is and isn’t.

The World Health Organization (WHO) released the “World Report On Violence and Health” (WRVH henceforth) in 2002 and defined violence as:

Violent/violence: The intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”

Nelson Mandela, who wrote the forward to the WRVH, said this about violence:

The twentieth century will be remembered as a century marked by violence. It burdens us with its legacy of mass destruction, of violence inflicted on a scale never seen and never possible before in human history. But this legacy – the result of new technology in the service of ideologies of hate – is not the only one we carry, nor that we must face up to. Less visible, but even more widespread, is the legacy of day-to-day, individual suffering. It is the pain of children who are abused by people who should protect them.

Nelson Mandela

Mandela’s forward goes on to list other “less visible” forms of violence, but I want to focus on young people. Are children becoming more “violent,” and do they indeed meet the definition of violence now accepted universally after the WVRH? Or is the word, “violent,” that describes war, occupation, genocide, colonization, and felonies appropriately used to describe children?

One word stands out above all others in the WHO definition; “Intentional.” Do neuro-divergent, black, and brown children, who are disproportionately punished intentionally inflict violence onto their caretakers? From the work of Dr. Mona Delahooke, Dr. Ross Greene, and the testimonies of neuro-divergent self-advocates, we know the behaviors of many children aren’t intentional, rather, they are the reactivity inherent to trauma, unmet needs, or denial of accommodations to disabled children.

Delahooke shared, “When I came to view problematic behaviors as adaptive responses, and not purposeful misbehavior, I shifted nearly all my beliefs about how to help children and families.” Dr. Greene says it much more simply, “kids do well if they can.” Emma Dalmayne, an autistic self-advocate has said, “I wish so much that one teacher would have asked ‘why?'” In other words, the prism through which we’ve been viewing children who struggle, how we work with them, attempting to modify behavior like Pavlov’s poor dog, always assumes the worst about children. It presumes distress is willful rage, and not non-volitional communication of trauma, pain, overload, or frustration. 

So, are we really working with children or on children? Rather than asking why the child is distressed and working on root causes with the child, schools are often working on fixing the behavior that’s merely a signal of distress, and seldom the source of the distress itself. This mentality seeks to comfort adults, not children. It also takes away the child’s last refuge of communication; it effectively silences a child. Behaviorism, the pervasive methodology employed in schools, centers on the struggles of the adult, not the child. The verbiage used about children also centers the struggle of the adults and not the kids. One commonly used by allies and opponents alike is “challenging” behaviors as opposed to challenged behaviors.

Challenging: Who is challenged in this paradigm? The adults. This says the child is challenging the adults. It centers adults, not children.

Challenged: Who is challenged in this instance? The child. This says the child is challenged by their disparate treatment for their race, being disabled by those not appropriately accommodating their disability. Or as is often the case; challenged by adults who are either intentionally or unwittingly escalating them. 

The vast majority of schools view disability through the medical model lens of disability and not the social model. The medical model says the disabled child is flawed and needs to be fixed to accommodate the system. The social model of disability says the system is broken, is disabling, and needs to be fixed to accommodate the child. Schools claim to be data-driven, yet don’t look at their data or ever consider a complete restructure of a system which is failing children.

Why on Earth are we letting a broken system tell us our children are broken? Children in distress are not trying to hurt or challenge adults. They want to make their own hurt stop and they don’t know how. Or often they do know what’s wrong but aren’t able to express it. 

As a neuro-divergent person myself, I knew this feeling all too well as a child. My worst meltdowns were just before my reading group. I’m ADHD. I’m also dyslexic. I could not sit still. I could not read. It was humiliating not to be able to read. 

Since the Industrial Revolution, the ability to decode and process text is the standard by which intelligence is measured, and that concept was not lost on my classmates. As reading group approached, I started to feel physically ill. That physical triggering from the trauma of inevitable bullying was physiological, and out of my control. But the decision to let go and let my freight engine of fear and shame barreling down the tracks, derail just before reading group daily, was also not intentional, even though for many years, I thought it was. I decided I’d rather sit in the seclusion closet than be called a “retard,” and hear the sound of vicious cruelty for the rest of the day. I screamed, I yelled, I kicked, I scratched, and fought being dragged to the closet. I really hated being secluded. It was a violent experience. I use that term in this context correctly, as it was done as a conseqence, the intentional imposition of harm to modify my behavior, classic Lovaas behaviorism 101. 

I didn’t want to go to the closet. I would have preferred a third choice that didn’t include my own humiliation or degradation, but a kinder third option didn’t exist until a teacher finally figured out that my meltdowns directly correlated with reading group. She was the first person in four years of school to ask me why I didn’t want to go to reading group. Everyone else just assumed I was a terrible kid. *I* thought I was a terrible kid. And until I was accommodated and learned to read, I engaged in these behaviors. The closet didn’t mitigate my behaviors; only learning to read did. 

Was I “violent?” After all, once the trauma train picked me up; didn’t I intentionally crash it into the side of the mountain to make it stop? Is it really a choice when both outcomes are traumatizing and cruel? When both choices are abusive, it’s not truly consent. I was choosing between being bullied by my cohorts or my teachers. It wasn’t a choice any child should ever be forced to make. 

Most have no control over their meltdowns. When denied appropriate accommodations, when overwhelmed by sensory stimulus, when in terror of failing or being bullied or harmed, or trauma reactivity, a child with few coping skills, often because of those challenges, isn’t able to regulate, and breaks down. Meltdowns for neuro-divergent or traumatized children are not intentional; therefore, they do not meet the criteria for “violence.” We must disabuse ourselves from the thinking that meltdowns are a willful temper tantrum, and understand the brain science of the last thirty years. Meltdowns are a neurological event like a seizure. No sooner would we punish an epileptic child for seizing, should we punish an autistic child for a meltdown. 

Who has the power?

Numerous studies have revealed that the nature of violence is to assert power and control. It’s also the basis for individual violent acts like domestic violence, sexual assault, and all forms of individual violence. Every resource or peer-reviewed paper on the nature of violence cites the power and control piece. When expanded to societal or mass acts of violence, we easily see power and control as the impetus for wars, colonization, and occupation. You name me a war or occupation, I’ll tell you who was seeking power over whom. The same goes for individual violence. Self-defense, however is not based in seeking power or control, hence is not a form of violence by definition. Children who exist in a persistent zero tolerance culture are in constant fight or flight reactivity and avoidance of danger mode. They are scanning the forest for predators and at the ready inexorably to self-defend. 

  • Do children in schools have either power or control over their circumstances? No.
  • Who posesses all the power and control in a classroom? Not children.
  • Who does wield all power in a school? Adults.

How then can children be considered violent without power or control? Is a child able to rise to the criteria of violence, when it’s long-established by WRVH and every other organization that studies violence, that violence is caused by those who place all energy into possessing and maintaining power and control over a victim?

Are children becoming more violent?

The next claim, that children are getting increasingly violent in staggering numbers in quantity and intensity, is just accepted at face value. It’s the narrative everyone accepts; schools are a war zone, and teachers need to arrive in riot gear, trained as SWAT officers to survive a day with these violent little devils. It’s a fascinating claim. Fascinating given the fact that worldwide youth violence statistics have decreased over 30% since the 1990s according to both The US Federal Bureau of Investigation, and also the World Health Organization. 

Joe Clark, the principal depicted in the film, “Lean on Me,” popularized zero tolerance of childhood by the late 80s. He was predated by the film, “Scared Straight,” released in 1978, which popularized, “tough love.” The problem being most tough love is heavy on tough with little to no love. Another contributor, broken window policing, presupposed that small crimes lead to more serious crimes. It wasn’t based on data, just the implicit and explicit biases of power and control junkies. So, arresting someone and punishing them severely for property damage would allegedly prevent more serious crimes later was the driver of broken window law enforcement. It was the impetus for “stop and frisk.” All based on the idea that the more you profile, scream at, demoralize, over-punish, and incarcerate for lesser offenses, or walk into school with a baseball bat with which to threaten children, (yes, Joe Clark actually did this) the better behaved and safer everyone will be. It’s stunning anyone ever thought applying the words, “zero tolerance” to children in schools was a good idea. 

Many still credit the tough love, zero tolerance movement with lowering the rates of violence, despite all data to the contrary. Overwhelming data from the Department of Education, Department of Justice, ACLU, American Bar Association, and numerous human rights organizations shows with alarming concurrence, zero tolerance in schools has only profiled black, brown, poor, and neuro-divergent children, and flushed far too many down the school to prison pipeline. These philosophies were also not implemented by law until violent crime rates were already decreasing fairly dramatically according to DOJ data. The Crime Bill, an act of Congress, allocated over 100 million dollars to put more law enforcement in schools. Police were not placed in schools to keep children safe from outsiders but to police the children inside the building. The results of forty years of zero tolerance, criminalizing minor offenses, the war on drugs, and tough love has been the school to prison pipeline and mass incarceration. Moreover, school shootings continue unabated even with 43% of US schools having armed police officers. According to the ACLU, the majority of schools with a police presence are student bodies that are a majority black and brown.  Coincidence? Absolutely not.

Department of Education data from the 2015-2016 school year, shows disabled children comprise 12% of schools, but were 71% of restraints and 66% of seclusions. This vulnerable population of kids was also 26% of those who had one or more suspensions, 24% of those expelled, and 28% of students referred to law enforcement. An American Bar Association study revealed 65% of incarcerated minors were students in special education, other studies speculate up to 75%. The Literacy Project Foundation found that three out of five people in US prisons cannot read and 85% of incarcerated minors have trouble reading. Illiteracy rates in prison are as high as 75%.

I wonder how many of those people incarcerated were dyslexic like I am, who never learned to read, starting their path to prison by engaging in distressed behaviors to avoid reading group, bullied by peers and teachers, locked in closets, skipping school later when they still couldn’t read, getting into trouble still not able to read, failing out or expelled, because they could not read. When the solution for almost all of them of would have been accommodations and teaching them to read. It’s really that simple. I have no acronyms after my name or degrees about which I can brag in remedial reading methodology. I can only speak to how demoralizing and painful it is to not be able to read when it seems everyone else can and to be punished and bullied for it by both my peers and my teachers. Broken down, traumatized, criminalized, unable to find employment. Sounds like the stepping stones on the road to incarceration.

More data from 2015-2016, black children comprised 15% of schools, but 27% of the children restrained and 23% of children subjected to seclusion. Black kids were 31% of those referred to law enforcement.  Black males made up 8% of schools but were 25% of the male students who received one or more out of school suspension and 23% of the males who were expelled. White boys are suspended and expelled for actual unlawful offenses, while black boys are five times more likely to be punished for subjective offenses like insubordination, loitering, or other minor non-violent indiscretions. Black girls are 10 times more likely to get a discipline referral than white girls. ACLU cites staggering racial incarceration disproportions. Black adults are 12% of the US population and 40% of incarcerated individuals. 

Then, at the intersection of race and disability, the numbers are more breathtaking. Department of Education data shows over one-quarter of black disabled boys, and 19% of black disabled girls received at least one out of school suspension in 2011-2012. Black disabled students represent 18.7% of the special education population, but 49.9% of special education students who are incarcerated. 

Over 700,000 minors a year are arrested. Every 43 seconds, a minor is arrested in the United States. Now, there are minors out there actually committing violent crimes. In fact the US Department of Justice states that 35% of juvenile crimes are violent. I do not have an issue calling actual violent crime, violence. Here’s the thing that sticks in my craw though. How many of those kids actually committed willful violence with the intention to inflict grave harm? How many are being incarcerated for behavior that would have landed prior generations in detention or the principal’s office? DOJ also reports that arrests for violence have actually decreased 60% since 2009, as incarceration rates steadily increase exponentially. So all the data tells us that juvenile crime is indeed decreasing dramatically since it’s height in the 1990s, and in every metric, but it began to decrease before the rates of incarceration sky-rocketed, so the claim that mass incarceration has lowered crimes is specious and not based on data. Also, the trend is worldwide, and consistent in nations without zero tolerance or mass incarceration. Non-violent crime is one of the main causes of mass incarceration. Ostensibly, while it might appear mass incarceration lowers crime rates, it doesnt bear out when we compare our crime data to other western democracies. 

So, are children becoming more violent in schools? Or are schools treating them more severely making them more reactive, in fight or flight danger mode, engaged in perpetual self-defense? Then, as they age out of being able to physically control them with restraint and seclusion, law enforcement is called. The vast majority of children who are restrained and secluded are under ten years old. Some dubiously claim that means it works, with numbers dropping off by Middle School. Except that’s when law enforcement is engaged. They go straight from the arms of school personnel into cuffs and a squad car. Dr. King once said,

Violence begets violence. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Are we teaching children when we lay hands on them in anger, that laying hands on others is how to appropriately respond to their own anger? After subjecting a child to years of restraint and seclusion, are we shocked that the aggression caused by distress escalates? Then they model the behavior taught to them in grade school as children. Is the behavior of these children offensive or defensive? 

What happens when all we focus on is fixing the behavior and not solving the issues causing the behavior? What happens when the only people with whom we consult are other adults? And the only question is, “how can we fix this child and stop their violent behaviors?” Rather than asking the child, “why are you in distress and what can I do to make it better?” Or among professionals, why are so few not asking the blatantly obvious question, “how are WE failing this child, and what accommodations does this child need to mitigate their distress?” Refusing to ask a child why and not listening or collaborating with a child is a denial of personhood, a human rights violation, yet it happens to too many disabled children in the United States every day. Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), signed in 1975, has never been fully funded in 45 years. It promised to appropriate a 40% per pupil outlay of federal funds for each disabled child, yet stands now at a paltry 13.7% per child funding. Not fully funding IDEA is a human rights violation against 7.1 million children in special education per year. 

The Civil Rights Act passed 11 years prior to IDEA, and Brown v Board, ten years before that, yet black and brown children are routinely treated inequitably, segregated, and over-disciplined.  Looking at disaggregated data that reveals staggering racial disparities in every metric for black and brown children, how do these children not feel the constant pang of generational trauma, and their own inequality and injustice against them when it has persisted for more than 400 years? Michelle Alexander, in her book, “The New Jim Crow,” stated: 

There are more black men in prison now than were enslaved in 1850.

Michelle Alexander

That is breathtaking, alarming, and most tragically, not surprising to those who understand the relentless violence of racial injustice. A quote we’ve heard a lot of lately with the uprising over police and systemic brutality, and zero tolerance of blackness:

A riot is the language of the unheard.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Dr. King understood back in 1967 in his, “The Other America” speech, the futility of focusing on behavior and not on the societal ills that caused the behavior. He also added: 

Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In other words, listening and asking ‘why are you struggling‘ rather than asking ‘how can I silence you‘ is how to prevent riotous behavior. Examining the racial data and implicit racial biases clearly held by far too many in education, extending black and brown children’s social justice through drafting and enforcing anti-racist policies is an absolute guarantor of mitigating traumatized behaviors caused by injustice. Expanding his brilliant logic further, by ensuring the right to accommodations to disabled children enshrined in IDEA, is an absolute guarantor of distress prevention. Are we serious about safer schools and decreasing challenged behavior? Social justice and progress in the forms of inclusion and equity are the answers, fulfilling the promises of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1975, and the 14th amendment fundamental right to equal protection under the law. These aren’t special privileges, but enumerated rights. 

Where is the danger in just a word?

This is an article I’ve long wanted to write but had difficulty organizing it, partly because my executive functioning as an ADHD person is not great, but then I realized, it’s more because I’m organizing around some of my own profound pain. I’m a survivor of more than one brutally violent crime. For me, violence isn’t just an intellectual discussion, but viscerally painful lived experience. And part of my healing process has been activism for rape justice and advocacy for victims of violence. I take the word, “violent” very seriously and use it as judiciously as I can as not to hollow it out. Its definition is abundantly clear, but it’s a word that’s overused. When ascribed to a person, it’s dangerous, and should be used sparingly. Individual violence is a crime in every context and in every culture. Because of toxic nationalism, mass violence only offends many when somebody else is doing it. When the word is used inappropriately, it’s a form of denial and dismissal of victims of actual violence. The perverse violence committed against me and millions of others is denied, by using the word inappropriately. So, it not only harms those upon whom it’s wrongfully inflicted, but also those who are victims of personal violence, war, genocide, colonization, and other true forms of violence. 

I also have an autistic son, who is non-speaking with high support needs. Since his earliest IEPs, he was labeled with words that describe felonious acts of violence for his meltdowns and distressed behaviors. In fact, we were often told when we opposed aversives or questioned behaviorism, that the only other choice for our son would be their having to engage law enforcement or him having to be institutionalized. That was terrifying. They punished him for his disability, and used our love for our little boy and terrorized us with threats.

We were told he was violent, committed vandalism, was aggressive, challenging, dangerous, lacked empathy. We could not understand why he became increasingly distressed and more aggressive, and he could not communicate it to us. And at school, his distressed behaviors were their primary focus, not his inability to communicate. We were told by the school and a bevy of experts, that his “violence” was a symptom of his autism. We’ve since come to learn, that no, it was not autism, but trauma. The trauma that emerges from denial of appropriate accommodations, and also from having restraint and seclusion inflicted on him daily. He was a child with an un-accommodated communication impairment who was rioting because he was unheard. He was being held face down in restraints, and locked alone hundreds of times in solitary confinement. He had no way to communicate his struggle other than to scream, kick, and scratch. He was rightfully angry and fighting for his life. He was self-advocating in a system wherein he had no power or control.

I know violence. I know what it feels like to have it inflicted on my body. It is a terror like no other. It is pain that never leaves one’s body. The bruises and lacerations may heal, but the psychological damage trauma deposits onto the brain never leave the body. 

When my autistic child melts down: that is not violence.

Even if he hits or kicks me in the process, it is a neurological event over which he has no control. And when he restores his composure, he feels terrible, so full of love and empathy. He’s a beautiful person. He is nothing like the monsters who inflicted the most wanton violence onto my body and mind. I intellectually understand what violence is, but more importantly, I know it because I’ve lived it.  

I honestly resent when schools use a word like violence to describe children so flippantly. It’s a heavily loaded word to bandy about, but if we’re going to bandy, let’s get back to the WRVH definition of violence; I’d like to apply it instead to how marginalized children are treated in schools. 

The intentional use of physical force or power...against a group or community: How about the disproportionate use of aversives against, black, brown, and disabled children? It’s discriminatory against clearly designated protected classes. 

..that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in death. Hundreds of children have been injured or killed by restraint and seclusion according to a 2009 Government Accountability Office report. Over 1 million incidents of children being restrained or secluded since 2009 when this report was released. Restraint, especially prone restraint has many fatalities. 

Psychological harm: Restraint and Seclusion in the same GAO report and thousands of testimonies since, cause trauma, and often PTSD. 

Maldevelopment: With suspension, a child, usually the children who struggle most in school, fall further behind their peers academically. It makes that child three times more likely to drop out of school. 

Or deprivation: Expulsion is depriving a child of their right to a free and appropriate public education. Children who are expelled are 3 times more likely to be incarcerated. Expulsion is based on the concept that children are disposable, refuge to be discarded.

The behavior of the majority of children in schools who are intentionally and forcefully restrained, secluded, suspended, or expelled does not rise to the level of the word violence. I’m sorry; it simply does not. The adults in power, however who inflict restraint, seclusion, suspension, and expulsion check every box on the WRVH definition.                                                                                  

Why is this possibly “life-threatening?”

Iowa recently passed an egregious law to punish disabled children and further de-fang any ability of parents to hold an abusive teacher accountable for their actions. I found out about this law through angry and upset parents in Iowa and began researching the issue. I came upon one particular reporter who, in every report about this discriminatory, unconstitutional law, referred to disabled children as “violent.” It was visceral for me; the offense I felt at his reporting, so I picked up the phone and called him and very calmly explained why disabled children are not “violent,” but that his verbiage he ascribed to them was ableist and verbally violent, and will cause grave harm. He seemed moved by my pleas, but in every subsequent story since, he’s continued employing violent language against disabled children. And the result of that language is illustrated gratuitously in the comments section. The discussion wasn’t, “why aren’t Iowa schools appropriately accommodating disabled children, which is clearly causing distressed behavior?” The discussion instead is a mob of neighbors to these kids with pitchforks and torches shrieking about how these violent children deserved to be punished, assaulted, segregated, and removed from school, and condemnations on the parenting of these violent chair-throwing monsters.  

The reporter’s persistent verbal violence and ignorance about disability and accommodations is literally harming disabled children in his state. It’s tragic. It’s not that he doesn’t know, because I know he does. I told him myself. It’s that he clearly doesn’t care. 

Does a child escape the word “violence” and the danger of it once they leave school?

The answer quite simply is, no. 

AASR team members are currently working with the mother of an extraordinary young autistic man named Mathew Rushin who was subjected to grave injustices at the hands of the criminal justice system. He defied a school system completely stacked against black autistic people, and graduated from high school with honors, and was studying mechanical engineering in college and it seems despite his struggles, his life was working well. Except for the system that harms and traumatizes children like him in schools, permits no defectors. He got into a car accident, in which there were injuries to other drivers, and police officers I believe, even though trained in interacting with autistic people, assumed he was violent and they turned a tragic accident into an attempted murder charge. It is my opinion that his own defense team, rather than doing due diligence and investigating his case thoroughly, or using his autism to explain some of his peculiar behavior at the sight of the accident, railroaded him into pleading “down” to a malicious wounding charge. 

Was it not possible to anyone; police, prosecutor, judge, and his own defense team, that a black autistic man could wound someone accidentally? It had to be intentional because people like Matthew are violent, right? Because people like Matthew, from the moment they’re born, all through school, in college, out of college, into life, don’t have accidents. They’re dangerous, lack empathy, defiant, violent. Even though the same system that has incarcerated him for 18 months does not mete out as harsh punishment for far worse accidents with alcohol or deaths committed by white or neuro-typical people. Being black or autistic or both aren’t crimes, but in schools and in our criminal justice system, they most certainly are. That’s not me speculating; that’s cold hard data.

Words matter, because false assumptions about disabled, black, and brown people are used to deny appropriate accommodations. They’re used to inflict restraint, seclusion, suspensions, expulsions onto them and to justify the school to prison pipeline. They’re used to discard and incarcerate people, the most vulnerable and marginalized among us. And the words we use on children, follow them into adulthood. The words we use about children must center their struggles, not ours. When we center their struggles rhetorically, I believe it’s the beginning of centering their needs, collaborating with them, and effectively and humanely educating them.

I opened with an Audre Lorde quote that bears repeating:

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.

Audre Lorde

Words are the most powerful tools known to humans throughout recorded history. Brutal authoritarians used words as weapons to warp minds before they ruthlessly slaughtered nations and colonized lands. Words are used to desensitize people to the humanity of those who need to be eliminated to wrest control of land and resources from indigenous peoples. Oppressors deny access to words to those they oppress to keep the knee on their necks. Dictators understand the power of words more than those they propagate. They’re more masterful with them, which is how they seize and maintain power. Words are used to desensitize the masses to justify depravities. Words can be used to uplift or restore, but also as a cudgel to bludgeon and disfigure, to cage, or kill.                                                                                                          

The words being used against children in schools are the tools that are keeping a toxic culture of zero tolerance and the criminalization of race, disability, poverty, and gender firmly entrenched. Words have been skillfully utilized to justify atrocities. Voltaire once mused, 

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.


Calling children words that describe intentional felonious acts is absurd and damaging. Accusing children of committing felonies makes laying hands on them, locking them in solitary confinement, suspending, and expelling them justifiable. Nobody is going to think punishing a felon is a bad thing, but they might think twice about punishing someone in distress. Nobody has a problem with harsh consequences for someone who is violent, but they may struggle to justify restraining, secluding, or discarding a child who is struggling with a disability. It’s fine to think a dangerous child needs to be caged, but much harder to accept it if it’s because of their race. It’s easy to justify incarcerating someone who lacks empathy, but much harder not to sympathize with someone who is traumatized.

We must dismantle the house of hurt. It’s on fire and enveloping us all in its destructive flames.   We must replace the words of violence used against marginalized people and replace them with questions, not assumptions; empathy, not judgment. We must accommodate disability, recognize trauma, and nurture those wounds. We must recognize our own implicit biases and stop codifying our ignorance into systems of oppression. We must build a world where we assume the best about those on the margins, placed there by the willful ignorance of others through no fault of their own. When we punish them and harm them with our words, they don’t hate their aggressors; they hate themselves. We can’t have that. Zero tolerance for children is unconscionable, as are all the ravages of it. If schools are willing to have a discussion in good faith about “safety,” then it’s time to draft anti-racist policies, to accommodate disability, end seclusion, restraint, suspensions, and expulsions. It’s time to shut down the school to prison pipeline. It’s time to understand the harm of affixing verbal violence onto children, which far too often lands them in a prison cell, or dead.

The system must change, and that starts with the words, because words matter.

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