Allow Kids to Be Angry


Florentina Staigers is an independent policy consultant with a background in law, sociology, and non-fiction writing. She currently works in the education field, but has also worked in immigrants’ rights and women’s rights.

I remember what would happen when I was a teenager and I became angry.  I would raise my voice and my parents would send me to my room to sit and stew.  At school, I would get a detention for using a certain tone of voice or questioning a teacher. Nowadays it would be a suspension. Even then, I realized that people do not want you to be angry, especially when you are a kid.

Across the entire nation, Blacks and other people of color are angry, and rightfully so. We want an end to state violence, to the institutional, structural and interpersonal racism that impacts our quality of life here in America. Like, all emotions, anger has a biological and practical use.  Anger is the very visceral signal that something is wrong, and it can serve us by motivating us to act and demand change.  But our anger is often met with defensiveness and denial instead of compassion and understanding. We are made out to be wrong for our anger. The message is that our anger is neither valid nor valuable.

After police shot and killed his father, Alton Sterling’s fifteen-year-old son, Cameron, calmly asked President Obama to “unite all the races of this world.”  Obama, in turn, praised him for his composure and forgiveness.

Yet, I can’t help but wonder how transient Cameron’s feelings might be, given the emotional storm he must be experiencing and the stages of grief. I can’t help but wonder about all the children and teenagers who are internalizing the violence they see in the world right now. I imagine that like I did as a teenager, they will believe they are not allowed to express their anger at all, let alone learn constructive ways to do so.  

New Orleans schools are already ripe with racial tension. Parents, teachers, advocates, and even students themselves frequently and consistently object to the disturbing racial dynamics of education reform. After Katrina, the city replaced veteran Black teachers with young, white newcomers to the city.  The percent of Black teachers has decreased from 71 to 49 percent in the last decade. As a result, schools have cultural gaps between their administration and student body, and they have reacted with strict, zero-tolerance school discipline policies.

There are many stories of students getting suspended for simple things like ‘uniform violations’ and ‘talking back.’  According to Louisiana Department of Education data, in the 2014-2015 school year, sixteen schools in New Orleans suspended more than one in five of their students.  As one participant in a post-Katrina town hall summarized the issue, “They took away our culture. They took away our choices. They’re getting my child ready for the prison system.”

In a nation where tensions continue to rise between communities of color and police authorities, I wonder how this will translate in New Orleans, with its predominantly Black student population and white school authorities.

I hope that schools will seriously reflect upon the lessons that are clear from the recent events: that anger deserves attention and a compassionate response.  I hope they will see that our anger is valid. As Dr. Alan Coulter, an expert in the field of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), stated: “Misbehavior is a puzzle, not a threat.” The ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has highlighted at least one piece of that puzzle: the burden of institutional, structural and interpersonal racism.  

I also hope schools will respond with understanding and compassion, with alternative approaches like PBIS and restorative justice instead of trying to shut down anger with more control.  I hope they see that zero-tolerance discipline policies and suspensions are not so different from police departments’ militarized tactics.

Finally, I hope schools will provide a space to heal. They can give students the opportunity to voice their anger and frustrations. They can teach them self-awareness, interpersonal skills, and conflict resolution tools to effectively handle their anger. By allowing them to be angry, schools can engage students in meaningful dialogue about how to end racial inequities in our school system.

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