OPINION: What Teachers Should Know About the Experience of Being a Black Student in Seattle Public Schools

by Ramone Johnson 

My name is Ramone Johnson and I’m 17 years old. I’m from Illinois originally, and ever since I’ve been to school out here in Washington, any situation in school has been blasted way out of proportion. I want to share my experience to help students and teachers understand each other and learn to value every student and make schools a better environment for everyone.

I started recognizing I was being treated differently as one of the only Black kids in my Seattle middle school. The school administration and security guards came as hard as they possibly could towards me. If I called out the way they were treating me differently than other students, they would call me disruptive and send me out of the classroom. It’s like they wanted to prove a point when I refused to adapt to their environment. I watched them give some students extra time to finish assignments, and they wouldn’t do the same for me. What made him better than me? We were both students that needed help. Instead, they’d treat me like a terrorist. They’d have the cop and school security guard following me around all day and blame me for things I didn’t do.

The worst situation was when my friend got in a fight with a white kid at our school. I didn’t even touch the kid — I was just standing there watching when my friend was fighting him. All I said was, “dang, he got beat up,” and I was suspended. The white kid’s parents took a No Contact Order out on me, even though I never even touched him nor threatened him. I didn’t hit him one time — not once. I was 12 years old at the time. I had to go to court and everything, and the judge granted the No Contact Order, so I couldn’t even go to school anymore because it would violate the amount of space I had to be away from him. 

I was out of school for almost two months and missed so much work. I was in the Associated Student Body (ASB) at the time and would help set up events and stuff, but I couldn’t even be at the events I helped plan because of the No Contact Order. I don’t even understand how that’s legal to take out a No Contact Order on a 12-year-old kid. I feel like regardless of what happened, the administration would pick and choose who they wanted to get in trouble. They had been doing it to me all year. If they found graffiti in the bathroom, they immediately said it was me that wrote it because I had a Sharpie, even though I used Sharpies to take notes in class. They just kept pursuing me in different situations that I wasn’t involved in and just assumed it was me. To this day I still don’t understand how I got in trouble for a fight that I threw no punches in. They didn’t have any actual reason to keep removing me from school, just their personal agendas. To administrators out there: just stay out of the student’s way. Stop making situations explode over nothing. Try to connect with kids instead of just punishing them.

This other kid got beat up when I was in middle school, and the school security guard asked me why I encouraged the guy to beat the kid up. I didn’t have anything to do with that situation. I never would tell someone to randomly beat up someone. Where’s the connection? Why are you connecting this situation to me? The assumption makes me not trust you. It proved to me that I’m a suspect to them, always. How am I supposed to learn in an environment where I’m a suspect? They had a magnifying glass directly on me and the people around me, and even when a situation did not involve me directly, they’d take me out of class and question me like a criminal. Anything I tried to do, they’d use it against me. If I was walking to class, the security guard would get on my head to get to class. That’s where I’m going. Why are you pinning me down? Why waste your energy pressing me when you could be building me up?

The first day I went to Garfield High School, the school security guard was targeting me and my friends before the first bell even rang. A school administrator told me I was disrespectful for not saying hi to him and told me to go home for the day. I took three buses to get to school that day. After that, I didn’t really want to be there anymore. I didn’t want to make the effort to get to school the rest of my freshman year. I’m making up for the credits now, but I feel like that whole situation could’ve been avoided without punishing me.

I know every student wants to be seen as an individual. Every student doesn’t have the same mentality nor the same needs. Treat us like people, not like “the student body.” I don’t understand why teachers want to put us in the same boat when we’re all very different people with very different backgrounds, home situations, everything. Some students ignore and suppress the disrespect they feel from teachers just to avoid tension with the teacher. Me, I value respect. I’m not one to take disrespect and walk into a classroom the next day with a smile on my face when a teacher just showed me they don’t care about me. I know my personal worth and if someone comes at me sideways, regardless of whether it’s a teacher or a student, it’s going to impact how I move and how I interact with that person. If you genuinely want students to learn with you, you have to make them want to go to your class. I see a lot of kids roaming the halls because they don’t feel respected in certain classes. I do the same thing; I’m not going to go to a class where a teacher doesn’t treat me with respect. 

The staff and teachers feel like they’re entitled to respect from everyone who is not in a position of power. They try to prove that if you don’t comply with what they feel like is “education,” they’ll punish you. The entitlement to respect makes it feel like they’re better than students, which lowers the student’s self-worth. You have to understand, both the teacher and the student build a relationship to have a functional school — they can’t just be drill sergeants that expect every student to respect them even when they are disrespecting us. 

Certain teachers aren’t good at communicating with students. Like if a student doesn’t know what to do and asks the teacher for help, they should work with the student at their own pace and be flexible with what they’re teaching. Teachers should be willing to slow down with some students rather than expect every student to be on the same level. It’s your job as a teacher to work with every kid until they understand it. Are you doing your job right? Some teachers have policies that we have to get missing work from other students rather than have the teacher explain what we missed. How are we supposed to explain how to do the work if a teacher doesn’t help us? Teachers’ policies expect us to do their job sometimes, and personally I feel like if we’re doing their job we should get their paycheck, too.

One of my favorite teachers is so respected because some kids at my school don’t speak English very well, and he’ll speak Spanish with them and make them feel comfortable. You have to expand your resources as a teacher, to understand the school you’re working for and the students there. If you don’t work to understand the students and what they need, you’re not doing your job. Find another way to teach if your students aren’t getting the material. If students are on the verge of breaking down, if a teacher is punishing them instead of building them up, the kid will just give up and drop out. We notice if a teacher is willing to go an extra mile for us, and we’ll reciprocate by going two extra miles for them. But if they’re just on our head about homework and don’t even try to understand our situations, we’re just not going to engage with them. 

A lot of teachers don’t like hearing this, but I’m trying to have each teacher understand our situation as students and see our perspective. All of us don’t work the same — all of us don’t communicate the same. Work with each student individually instead of expecting every student to be the exact same. Not everyone can take home extra work and be in a position to finish it. Some kids have jobs or take care of their siblings or have other stuff going on at home. Stop making assumptions about kids’ lives and get to know us. Teachers have to build respect with every student, and I know that’s a hard thing to do, but it’ll make their jobs easier in the long run because respect is a two-way street. It’d be a way better environment for everyone if both perspectives were taken into account. I think some teachers and staff do extra stuff in the wrong categories, like instead of helping a student who really needs help, they’d rather deeply investigate a fight outside of school. We just want to be seen and respected for who we are instead of being treated like criminals.

Note: An earlier version of this article said that it was the Garfield principal who told the author to “go home for the day.” It was another school administrator who told him this.

Ramone Johnson is a former Seattle Public Schools student and is an incoming senior at Sammamish High School.

Featured image: COD Newsroom.

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