When was the last time someone told you that you matter?
Better yet, when was the last time an authority figure told you so?
If you can’t remember, you most certainly have company. But not, perhaps, the company of Vidal Chastanet.
When Humans of New York documentarian Brandon Stanton asked the 13-year-old Chastanet who had influenced him most in his life, the Brownsville, Brooklyn student responded with, “my principal, Ms. Lopez.”
“How?” Stanton pressed.
“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us,” Chastanet said. “She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time, she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”
The post has rocked the Internet ever since its Jan. 19 publication on the Humans of New York Facebook page. It has amassed more than one million likes and shares on social media, giving rise to a national conversation about the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the term describes a trend where children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many such children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse or neglect.
While many of us have always returned to supportive, loving families when school isn’t in session, far too many other students don’t share that privilege. If school — which could potentially serve as their safe haven — keeps them teetering on the blade of imprisonment, are we truly offering them at least the minimal educational opportunities they deserve?
Students who drop out of school are eight times more likely to end up in prison and three times more likely to be unemployed, according to City Year, a nonprofit that serves public schools in need of additional resources and support. Furthermore, zero-tolerance policies in schools tend to criminalize minor infractions of school rules.
Take, for instance, 7-year-old Maryland native Josh Welch, who was suspended from his elementary school in 2013 for chewing a Pop-Tart into the shape of a pistol. Or the 13-year-old boy in Oklahoma City who, in 2010, was arrested for vandalism when his black Sharpie bled through a piece of paper and stained his desk. Or the seven teenagers from Raleigh, North Carolina, who were arrested and charged with disorderly conduct in 2013 for an end-of-year water balloon fight. One member of the accused group was additionally charged with assault and battery because his balloon hit a security officer.
Students of color are especially subject to the school-to-prison pipeline, as well as the discriminatory application of discipline, the ACLU says. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, black students are expelled at a rate three times greater than white students, while black and Latino students account for 70 percent of police referrals. As Mary Ellen Flannery of the National Education Association writes, students with disabilities are twice as likely to be suspended than their non-disabled peers, and LGBT students are 1.4 times more likely to face suspension than their straight peers.
Of course, there are also students who intentionally break school rules and are severely penalized for their misdemeanors. All faculty, staff and administration within schools certainly deserve students’ respect. But how can we expect children who are just beginning to mold their perceptions of “right” and “wrong” to do everything perfectly?
Principal Nadia Lopez takes a far more realistic and effective approach. Rather than practically handing students who misbehave orange jumpsuits, Lopez presents them with the larger implications of their actions and encourages them to become their best selves.
Her strategy has high impact largely because of its tough-but-sensitive nature. We’re all prone to making mistakes at least occasionally — even those of the ugliest kind — but our entire character shouldn’t be determined by one lapse in judgment. What’s more, the course of our lives shouldn’t be dictated by one decision we make at an immature age. Believing we have no impact, purpose or potential grows quickly existential, demoralizing us until we reach utter defeat.
Discrimination and derision have no rightful place, least of all in our education system. We all deserve a Principal Lopez: someone who won’t give up on us when we stumble, someone who inspires us to be better even when we’re at our worst. Someone who makes us feel like we matter.
Because, in the end, we all do.