D.C.'s School For Young Boys Of Color Tackles Mistrust Between Students And Police

Nov 19, 2017
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Some 60 percent of black Americans say they or a family member have been stopped or treated unfairly by police because they are black. That's according to a recently released poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. We're going to look at how this mistrust of police has played out in one Washington, D.C., school. Ron Brown College Prep is a new high school. It was designed to serve the District's young men of color. Kaya Henderson is the former head of D.C. public schools and the driving force behind Ron Brown, and she's also a parent whose son bought his first car last year - an American rite of passage. And this scares her.

KAYA HENDERSON: He's safer on the bus. He's safer walking than he is driving a car because a cop is going to pull him over. And if he doesn't have the presence of mind to put two hands on the steering wheel and, you know, not keep walking or whatever, he could die.

HENDERSON: Last year, NPR's Corey Turner and Education Week's Kavitha Cardoza spent hundreds of hours at Ron Brown, documenting its first year. This fear of police came up a lot among the 14 and 15-year-old boys there. So one day, the school leaders did something about it - they called the police. Here's a warning - some might find parts of the story disturbing. Here's Cory and Kavitha.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: It's March 2017. The ninth graders at Ron Brown didn't know these men, but they sure know their names.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Michael Brown. Eric Garner. Tamir Rice.

CARDOZA: Walter Scott. Freddie Gray. Philando Castile.

TURNER: All unarmed black men killed by police. Many students here are confused by these stories and angry, and the grown-ups in the building can feel it.

CHARLES CURTIS: A lot of them will say, you know, [expletive] the police. Like, I think a lot of that false bravado is based in fear.

TURNER: Charles Curtis is the school's psychologist.

CURTIS: Our goal instead is to help them not be fearful.

CARDOZA: And he hopes to do that by calling the school's roughly 100 students into the cafeteria and breaking them into small circles. In the center of each, ready to answer questions, is a uniformed D.C. police officer.

TYRONE WALLACE: Officer Wallace, 6th District, been on the department for about nine years.

TURNER: Tyrone Wallace is middle-aged with locks down to his belt. Like every other officer here and student, he is black.

CARDOZA: The hope is the boys will feel comfortable asking questions about his life and why he wanted to be a police officer and that maybe, just maybe they'll start seeing a man they can trust instead of a badge they don't.

TURNER: But the teens cross their arms and stare at the floor. No one wants to talk. Finally, Officer Wallace tries to break the ice.

WALLACE: Anybody ever been like shot, stabbed, anything like that?

TURNER: One 15-year-old raises his hand - stabbed.

CARDOZA: Office Wallace says he was shot in the head and the hand before he joined the force.

TURNER: And in high school, while at a local club, he was stabbed in the back.

WALLACE: I'm in the back of the club pretty much bleeding out, nobody there to help me. Had to take myself to the hospital. Always know who your friends are 'cause a lot of times, they not really your friends.

CARDOZA: The students in the circle aren't sure what to make of Wallace. He grew up in D.C. and seems so real.

TURNER: But so is his badge, so no one asks a question. No one says a word.

TURNER: It's the same story in a nearby circle until Charles Curtis, the psychologist, asks...

CURTIS: How many of y'all have had interactions with police officers?

CARDOZA: There are 10 students in the circle, seven raise their hands. And it's clear from their faces these were not positive interactions.

TURNER: We're just using first names to protect the students' privacy. One of them, Jaylin, says he was on a Metro train when some teens he didn't know started making a scene. A police officer was called and grabbed him.

JAYLIN: I told him it wasn't me, but he slammed me against the bench, me and my friend.

TARIK HARLESTON: That's not right in any instance.

CARDOZA: That's Tarik Harleston, one of the younger officers in the room.

HARLESTON: You get his name, his badge number, and you file a complaint. And you also tell somebody. Tell your mother. Tell your father. Make sure you're heard about situations like that 'cause that's never acceptable.

TURNER: Students roll their eyes. It sounds crazy - ask a police officer who's just harassed you for his name and badge number? Charles Curtis, the psychologist, he sees this, and he gives voice to their feelings.

CURTIS: If I'm them, how do I get his name? Like, if you just slammed me against the bench, like, do I hit you with, hey, what's your name?

HARLESTON: I mean, he has to give you his name and his badge number. When you ask for it, he has to. That's required.

CARDOZA: This opens the floodgates. Another student, Tremayne, who's short and unassuming, says he was at a park once. Someone nearby was smoking weed, and a police officer pulled up with his partner. They thought he was the one smoking.

TREMAYNE: And that's when he grabbed me. He like swung me - started swinging me. He's like, you got weed on you? And I was like, let me go. And then they started recording it. He told them to turn off the camera. They put me on the ground and started walking away.

HARLESTON: They just put you on the ground and just walked away?

TREMAYNE: Put me on the ground and just - told him to stop recording and just walked away.

HARLESTON: You didn't tell anyone?

TREMAYNE: I tried. But they said, did you ask for his badge number and his name? And I said, no. And they was like, there's nothing we can do.

TURNER: Officer Harleston shakes his head. He looks down at his hands and then his forearm, where he has a tattoo of a giant dragon holding a police badge.

HARLESTON: That's not right at all. That's unacceptable. I mean, I can't speak much on the bad apples. I mean, you just got cops that do bad things. I mean, they're overly aggressive. It happens. You got them in every bunch - it happens.

CARDOZA: A consultant with the department leans in and says D.C. has 3,700 officers. There are going to be some bad apples, but most are good guys, regular guys.

TURNER: One student asks if bad apples joined the force because they got picked on as kids.

CARDOZA: The officers don't have answers and are visibly bothered by the stories they've heard.

TURNER: At this point, these circles are working in reverse. Instead of the officers getting a chance to humanize themselves, it's the students arguing for their own humanity.

CARDOZA: Finally, a third circle has come to an impasse. Again, no one's talking.

TURNER: That's when the only white officer in the room steps in and sits down. It's D.C.'s chief of police, Peter Newsham.

PETER NEWSHAM: If you want to change the way the police behave, become the police. We will be hiring when you all get out of high school. I know. Look, he turns his head. He don't want to listen. It's a very good job, and you can change the narrative.

TURNER: After the event wraps up, I circle back with officer Tyrone Wallace, who told the students he'd been shot and stabbed. Did you thaw them out any? They seemed really cagey.

WALLACE: No, man. They was still scared. Like, I mean, I don't blame them. This day and age, it's kind of hard to talk to police. It's a long way, man. You can't - one time will not help a group of kids. You got to keep instilling, you know, trust in them. If you don't then you will lose them.

CARDOZA: Though it's clear many of these students have already been lost. The challenge now is winning back their trust.

MARTIN: That was Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week and Cory Turner with the NPR Ed team. To hear more of their reporting from Ron Brown College Prep, go to npr.org/raisingkings. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.