May 17 marks the 65th anniversary of Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the landmark Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racial segregation in public schools. The court ordered states to end segregation “with all deliberate speed,” making clear that separate was not and could not be equal. They even cited the importance of mental health and based the ruling on the impact segregation has on a child’s ability to learn and thrive.
But, more than six decades later, according to the Education Policy Institute, “Black and brown children are more racially and socioeconomically isolated today than at any time since data have been available.” Court decisions have limited Brown, and the privatization of schools and the school-choice movement continue to grow and undermine public schools everywhere. To make matters worse, studies have shown that rates of depression among kids ages 14 to 17 increased by more than 60 percent in the past decade.
It’s clear that our nation’s school system looks far too much like that of the 1950s, with the addition of a mental health crisis.
America’s schools were not founded to educate all children to high levels or to foster their mental health. Our school system was, and continues to be, a mechanism to perpetuate racial and economic stratification. Brown and the Civil Rights Movement forced us to see that black Americans were being treated as second-class citizens, and it is clear that those goals of full integration and access have never been met.
Just as in the pre-Brown era, children of color are getting fewer educational resources and lower quality educational opportunities, and thus are less successful academically. Students of color go to schools with larger class sizes and that are short staffed. They have less access to advanced curricula and programs and are more likely to be taught by newer, less experienced teachers than their white peers. They are more likely to be suspended or expelled. In 2015, 59 percent of black boys and 65 percent of Latino boys graduated from public high school, compared to 80 percent of white, non-Latino boys.
Since forced integration, we have seen the militarization of schools. The first school police officer position was created in 1953. In 1975, only 1 percent of schools had police on campus. Now armed police, metal detectors and surveillance are common in schools, more so in schools serving black and brown students. Black students are three times more likely than other students to attend a school with security personnel but no counselors, suggesting that desegregation and racial animus have been animating forces in decisions to put police in schools.
In Miami, Power U Center for Social Change is one of many organizations around the country fighting to advance the true intentions of Brown. For everyday people in Florida, we see how the state Legislature continues to undermine its legacy. Teachers are allowed to carry firearms, and charter schools continue to dig into public school funds. Police and student resource officers collectively far outnumber mental health counselors in every county. Many schools do not have nurses even though, in Miami-Dade, this county has one of the highest rates of new HIV cases among young people.
It doesn’t have to be this way. While the federal government has a mandate to ensure the promise of Brown is implemented, it has made clear that it will continue to avoid that responsibility. Instead, it will fall to us locally to ensure our schools are serving black and brown students equally. We know from our work that it can be done.
Power U is a space where black and brown students who are directly affected by bad policy have stepped into leadership on behalf of themselves to fight for a school system that prioritizes their full development, not just test scores. They are active in their communities and trying to work with the School Board to ensure that the upcoming school budget provides all schools with adequate mental health resources and access to the healthcare needed to support the entire student. For mental health awareness week, they are partnering with Ben & Jerry’s and inviting all community members to attend their upcoming town hall, “The State of Mental Health and Youth” on May 29 at Space Called Tribe Co-Work and Urban Innovation Lab in Overtown.
Three generations of children have gone through our schools since 1954, when Brown was decided. While there have been gains in educational achievement for students of color, these gains are limited by all of the issues young people face at this politically tense time. It is up to us all to ensure that children are prepared to meet the demands of this moment.
James Lopez is the executive director of Power U Center for Social Change in Miami.