As students nationwide kick off fall classes in a new virtual environment, one Black seventh grader in Colorado is waiting to find out if he will attend school again this fall at all.
What started off as a normal day of virtual learning ended with the police being called on the 12-year-old boy because he was playing with a toy gun during virtual art class. Now the boy, Isaiah, has a record with the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, and received a five-day suspension from the school and a mark on his school disciplinary paperwork saying he brought a “facsimile of a firearm to school” even though he never left his house. The toy gun was painted black and green with the words “Zombie hunter” on the side.
Isaiah’s mom, Dani Elliott, believes that if anyone did anything wrong, it was the school. “There were several issues that I felt were very inappropriate and illegal [on its part],” Elliott said in an interview with Yahoo News. “It was just a gross overreach of their authority.”
It happened on Aug. 27, the third day of distance learning at Grand Mountain School in Colorado Springs. An art teacher noticed Isaiah, who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, playing with something on the virtual screen and sent Elliott an email at 10:17 a.m. notifying her that Isaiah had been distracted during class by an “assumed toy gun,” Elliott says. Elliott immediately responded, assuring the teacher that it was, in fact, a toy gun and that she would speak with her son about the incident.
But police were summoned to the school at around noon, according to a police report, and at 1:41 p.m., Elliott, who was at her job as a contractor for the military, was notified that police were going to her home for a health and wellness check.
“At that point I then called my son immediately, and I told him to stay away from the windows, to lock the doors, to not open the doors, because the cops are on their way,” Elliott said. “And I told him to go down into the basement. I know that may sound extreme to some, but with the cultural climate of what’s going on in America today, specifically with Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy killed for playing with a toy gun, that’s a very real reality for a lot of parents across the world right now. So his exact words were ‘Mommy, you’re scaring me,’ and for a mother, it’s heartbreaking to hear something like that.”
Elliott then called her husband, Curtis, who is in the Air Force, and asked him to go to the house, where he met police when they arrived an hour later. Police told Isaiah and his father that if the toy gun had been brought into a school, the boy could have faced criminal charges. But the recording that Curtis viewed did not show a toy gun pointed at the camera screen, as the art teacher alleged. Instead, it showed Isaiah moving the toy gun from one side of the couch to the other.
Elliott and her husband spent the next few days speaking with school administrators to better understand why her son was recorded, why the parents weren’t called before police were dispatched to the house and why her son was threatened with charges. But for Elliott, the school never gave adequate responses to her concerns.
“I think going forward, there needs to be clear-cut policy in regards to what’s appropriate in a school setting and what’s appropriate at home,” Elliott said. “Something that may not be appropriate at school, such as toy guns or chewing gum or profanity and things like that, [may be fine at home]. Who is the school to tell us what we can and can’t have in our homes, especially when they are perfectly legal?”
Elliott added that the school doesn’t understand the severity of its actions involving law enforcement with a young Black boy and how badly this situation could have turned out.
“I could have been easily burying my son today,” she said. “I could be planning a funeral for my son because of their negligent actions. And when we tried to explain those factors to them, the principal, Brian Pohl, told me that he doesn’t see race.” Yahoo News reached out to Grand Mountain School and Pohl several times, but they did not return our requests for comment.
In a statement on its Facebook page, which it has since made inactive, the Grand Mountain School acknowledged that the digital platform the school uses for virtual teaching has a recording function. “During our first week of school, we were still becoming familiar with the platform,” the statement said. “It is not our current practice to record classes at this time. Parents will be notified if that changes.”
Elliott pulled her son out of the school after not feeling comfortable with the way the situation was handled. Isaiah is now on the wait list at a number of nearby private and charter schools. Elliott adds that her family has received a great deal of support from people reaching out, and some have even offered to tutor Isaiah until he is enrolled in another school.
The incident has shaken the Elliott family in a new kind of way, but data shows that the criminalization of Black youth in schools is real. Apart from the strains imposed by remote learning, Black students are disciplined and arrested at school at disproportionately high levels, an analysis of federal data from 2017 by the Education Week Research Center finds. “In 28 states, the share of arrested students who are Black is at least 10% higher than their share of enrollment in schools with at least one arrest,” the report found. “In 10 of those states, that gap is at least 20%.”
According to a 2018 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, Black youth are “15.5% of all public school students, but represented about 39% of students suspended from school.”
Black children come to realize at a young age that the world may view them as a threat. Elliott and her husband began discussing with Isaiah what it means to be Black in America when he was just 6 years old.
“We’ve had to start these conversations with my son very early on,” Elliott said. “As much as I want to keep him sheltered, I also want to prepare him for the ugliness of the world. At age 6, he went to a trampoline park and he had a Caucasian worker there tell him that no coloreds were allowed. He used to love going to that place, and he never wanted to go back because of what they told him.”
She continued: “At age 7, he got his ears pierced and he thought he was so cool and happy. He went to school, and then he came back and he wanted to take them out because, he said, people were like, ‘Oh, are you a thug? Are you a pimp? Are you a gangster?’ And he didn’t want to wear them anymore. Age 8, he wore a poop emoji shirt. It said something funny on it. He loved the shirt and he used to wear it all the time. He came home one day and I was picking out his clothes and he’s like, ‘Mom, I don’t want to wear that shirt anymore.’ And I’m like, why? And he said that one of the teachers in district three, his music teacher, called him out and was like, ‘Hey, poop boy.’ And then all the class, they start laughing and they’re like, ‘Oh, you have the same color skin as the poop on your shirt. You’re a poop skin.’ And then age 9, he had somebody tell him that God left him in the oven too long. So for me, as a parent, I have to explain these things starting at the age of 6, it literally breaks my heart to where I have to tell him the privileges that he does and doesn’t have. I have to do what I have to do as a mother to protect my son and to ensure his future and to make sure he’s not the next body in the news. I refuse to let this be my son’s narrative.”
The school-to-prison pipeline has been well documented as a reality for many young students of color, particularly Black students. A National Juvenile Justice Network report notes that “students find themselves on a fast track to jail due to school policies such as zero-tolerance disciplinary policies, in which many youth are pushed out of school (suspended or expelled) as well as sent to the juvenile justice system for petty disciplinary matters.” Black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students, according to the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights.
While standing up for her son, Elliott says she now feels a responsibility to fight for others in the same situation.
“My ultimate goal would be to see some policies changed, to see criminalization of children decrease, to see discrimination of children with disabilities decrease and to provide more resources for children instead of them just getting labeled as ‘bad seeds,’” she said. “I want to advocate for my son and get him the apology that he deserves and to get his records cleared. I [also] want to spread awareness of the parents so that something like this doesn’t occur to them, and hopefully maybe even save a life.”
Elliott adds: “I’m by no means a subject matter expert. I’m just a mother who loves the hell out of her child and I’m going to do whatever it takes to be heard.”
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