Promoting Safety Through Relationships

By Olga Acosta Price,  Director of the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools

I am the very proud mother of a young man of color (and an elementary-age daughter of color- have to mention her so she doesn’t get jealous!) but I am also an anxious mother who, in light of the recent tragedies at Sante Fe and Parkland HS, is having a harder time sending her son off to middle school every day. As the director of the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools (CHHCS) and an associate professor at the Milken Institute School of Public Health at GW I know that despite public perceptions, schools remain one of the safest places for our children.  Yet, my parental concern is not without some merit, especially when layered on top of the anxiety about my son encountering law enforcement- whether in or out of school.

I recently attended a MOBB (Moms of Black Boys) event with my 12-year-old son to learn about strategies he can employ to increase the likelihood he’ll be safe and return home alive following an encounter with the police. Because I am invested in preventing additional tragedies in whatever ways I can, I took the following notes:

  • Law enforcement does have the authority to stop us and question our whereabouts. Although we may feel frustrated about being stopped when we did nothing wrong, we are not always privy to the information that is driving that officer’s actions- so it is best to answer all questions and try to end the engagement as quickly as possible.
  • Stay calm, do not raise your voice, and do not run, no matter how scared you are. Keep your hands visible at all times and do not make any sudden movements.  If you happen to get arrested, do not resist arrest and do not say anything until your parents or a lawyer arrives.
  • Although we should always comply, we are well within our rights to politely ask questions. My son was encouraged to ask for the officer’s ID and badge (because even plain-clothed police can question him so it is important he is not giving out personal information to a total stranger) and to inquire whether he has done anything wrong. If my son is not being detained and his answers do not raise any concerns, he should be free to leave after the initial 5-min contact- but he needs to wait for the officer to agree to release him before walking away.

On the one hand I was relieved to have some specific strategies to drill into my son’s head, but on the other hand I was furious and disempowered sharing these tips with my son.  I am still angry about operating from a position of fear, as well as transferring that fear to my son, in order to decrease the likelihood that his life is cut short.  I took deep breaths and contemplated how to channel these frustrations into a constructive path forward.

I came to the simple, but poignant, truth that part of the solution lies in our ability to have authentic relationships with one another. Mutual respect is paramount to ensuring safety and protecting each other, and respect cannot be created without relationship. In our community conversation we established that law enforcement officials deserve some level of respect simply for their willingness to ‘serve and protect’ in the face of danger.  It was fairly easy for all of us to agree that they do not have an easy job. But, we also voiced the need for community members (young and old) to feel respected when officers entered into encounters with them.  We all conceded that it is much harder to be aggressive, and lack empathy, when we know something about the person behind the clothes- whether it is the uniform or the baggy jeans.

The same principle holds true for schools- adults’ ability to keep our children safe, to keep them engaged in learning, to foster their development as responsible and contributing citizens, is directly tied to our ability to teach them the power and the responsibility of relationships.  Yet, it is impossible to teach that life lesson if we ourselves are unwilling or unable to enter into meaningful relationships with students, their parents, or with each other.  In relationships, there are times we are the teacher, and other times that we need to be the student. Understanding the pressures, challenges, assets, priorities, world views that shape our students’ experiences, including their educational experiences, requires that we build trust and appreciate the realities they face. It also means we must accept that one person, or any one sector, cannot alone ameliorate the deep-seated risky or negative conditions that rob many children and their families of a sense of safety, hope, and optimism.

It dawned on me that the same idea holds true for organizations and sectors working together- respect cannot be created without relationship.  Collaboration across systems is an essential ingredient if we aim to advance the health and well-being of all youth, but as someone once said “collaboration is an unnatural act between non-consenting adults”. Working to bridge the divide that exists among child-serving agencies, community partners, schools, and families is why CHHCS developed the Partner Build Grow online resource, to provide communities the practical steps to help them sustain initiatives that promote positive student development.  This action guide yields effective outcomes only when relationships and respect undergird these collective actions.

So, I am once again reminded of the power of relationships.  That in all of these settings or across circumstances we would do best to talk less and listen more, ask questions in place of directing orders, appreciate differences without requiring compliance.  I recognize this is all much easier said than done, but our success, and children’s wellbeing, and our boys’ safety, are at stake. So, right now, nothing else seems more important……. except to go and hug my son.