One of America’s most iconic writers and performers is tackling the USA’s “school-to-prison pipeline,” a term education activists use to describe a school discipline system that routinely punishes low-income and minority students more harshly than their white, middle-class peers — even for minor infractions.
Harsher punishments, activists say, make it more likely that these students will encounter school police and outside law enforcement, leading thousands of young people down a path of suspension, expulsion, arrest and imprisonment.
In “Notes from the Field,” playwright and performer Anna Deavere Smith explores the disparity, and the USA’s unequal education and justice system as a whole. A film adaptation of the 2015 play premieres Saturday on HBO.
Smith interviewed more than 250 people for the original production — she distills the interviews down to monologues by 19 real-life characters, from U.S. Rep. John Lewis to Stockton, Calif., Mayor Michael Tubbs and Jamal Harrison Bryant, the Baltimore pastor who delivered Freddie Gray’s electrifying eulogy in 2015.
Known mainly for her roles on the TV shows “The West Wing” (Smith played National Security Advisor Nancy McNally) and “Nurse Jackie” (she played hospital administrator Gloria Akalitus), Smith has for 25 years produced searing one-woman plays that explore issues of race, class and justice in America.
The new work opens in Baltimore, her hometown, with Gray’s death at the hands of police. In the course of 90 minutes, her monologues move from anger over racist policing, housing policies and education to a mourning over the results and, ultimately, a kind of forgiveness.
But in the end, her characters hold the nation accountable for our yawning gaps in educational opportunity and in our expectations for poor kids of color.
In one devastating scene, Smith performs as Denise Dodson, an inmate at a Maryland penitentiary who notes that she trains dogs as her work behind bars. Dodson explains her training secret: Praise the animals for their successes, “letting them know they’re doing the right thing.”
She concludes: “We get really good results.”
In an interview, Smith admitted that she was “proud of that moment, because that moment is my indictment” of our unequal system.
Even so, by the time she concluded her extensive research for the play, Smith decided it was almost unfair to blame schools for the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
“Schools aren’t equipped to handle the problems of poverty and everything that go with it,” she said. “It’s going to call for a lot more than schools. Facing off poverty is a large, multi-faceted problem.”
The dilemma of unequal school discipline may seldom rise to the national stage, but it has captured the attention of civil rights groups, which have urged schools to hire fewer, not more, police in schools. More law enforcement, they say, can actually make safety worse for many children.
Months after the Sandy Hook school shootings, even as many Americans clamored for more armed police in schools, Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights group, said schools would be better served by developing long-term safety plans, investing in conflict resolution and in better student access to mental health services.
As part of its proposal, the group tracked school referrals to Florida’s juvenile justice system in the 2010-11 school year, finding that of 16,400 referrals, 69% were for misdemeanors.
“Students aren’t being arrested in school for safety concerns,” Advancement Project co-Director Judith Browne Dianis said. “Those referrals are for things like disorderly conduct.”
Smith, 67, said the new play, like all of her works, has given her a closer look at “the dignity of struggle” for her characters. “I think that’s what so draws me to this work,” she said.
“I could do it for as long as I can hear — at least the interview part of it. We’ll forget about the learning lines and the physical stamina part of it,” she said with a laugh. “I understand that won’t be with me forever. But the listening part of it, I can do for as long as I have ears, because I think it’s very beautiful. It’s my purpose for being, really, and it’s usually beautiful.”
Source: ABC News 13
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