Ohio school lockdown puts officials at nexus of violence and race: Lessons?

Authorities have locked down a Cincinnati-area elementary school to protect students from frequent gunfire. Some parents see it as a racist move to eventually close the school.

Associated Press
Students, parents and educators rally at the US Supreme Court on the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down “separate but equal” laws that kept schools segregated.

After permanently locking down a Cincinnati-area elementary school to protect kids from frequent gunfire, Ohio education officials are now under rhetorical fire from local residents, who allege the hard security measures have racist overtones.

Princeton City School District officials decided this week to lock down Lincoln Heights Elementary School for the rest of the year, meaning the cancellation primarily of outside activities like recess and P.E. Officials cited several previous lockdowns that resulted from gunfire incidents, including a bullet entering a school bus and lodging next to a bus driver’s head, as their reasoning.

But at a testy meeting with parents on Friday, some parents alleged the lockdown is a plot and a set-up to close down the long-time neighborhood school and thus, in a larger sense, turning their back on the troubled neighborhood they call home.

"Makes me think that the majority of the people that want to close the school down are racist," said Elbert Daniels, a local resident, according to Fox 19 News.

The situation pits the legal imperatives of a large school district against the sensitivities of residents who struggle with the legacy of racism and who live in some of America’s most violent crime areas.

Notably, the clash over race and safety at an inner-city black school in America came on the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court, ordering the end of segregated schools.

Because of primarily socio-economic realities, large parts of America, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest, are instead now seeing segregation deepening and class boundaries hardening. Marking the success of Brown, the South is today the least segregated region of the country.

A celebration of Brown “should … involve thinking seriously about why the country has turned away from the goal of Brown and accepted deepening polarization and inequality in our schools,” writes Gary Orfield, co-author of a new study called “Brown at 60,” and co-director of the Civil Rights Project, at UCLA.

As a result, researchers argue, many Americans see the world through dramatically different cultural prisms, a fact that came to the fore at Lincoln Heights as some parents took efforts to protect their children at school as a racist plot.

What Americans who live in safer parts of the country might find shocking about reports of gun fire near a school has become, in places like Lincoln Heights, part of normal, to the extent that violence in some cases no longer engenders fear among residents, studies have found.

“The percentage of students who should feel afraid may be higher [than one in five]: many students who reported exposure to crime and violence did not report commensurate feelings of fear,” according to “Students in Peril,” a landmark report from the University of North Carolina’s School of Social Work.

That appeared to be the sentiment of one Lincoln Heights mom, who was quoted by Fox 19 as saying, “I care about the fact that the fools [are] up there shooting on the hill, but don’t act like it is everybody. Don’t act like we don’t care … [or that] we don’t want our children educated because we do.”

Beleaguered school officials defended the lockdown, telling parents that it’s the sixth lockdown since a school bus was hit by a bullet in December. At the start of the school year, said Princeton Schools Superintendent Gary Pack, a child was hit by a stray bullet inside a car. The lockdown comes about a week after two people were shot around the corner from the school.

“We feel that it is necessary [to lock the school down] due to the continued random shootings in the neighborhood, and the fact that bullets don’t have eyes,” said Mr. Pack. “[Shootings are] happening during the day when school is in session.”

Cincinnati has some of the country’s highest levels of racial segregation, and is one of the most crime-ridden cities in the US, averaging 273 crimes per square mile per year, compared to the national average of 39 crimes per square mile.

As the community around Lincoln Heights Elementary School complained and sought answers to why their kids can’t go outside for recess, federal school officials continued to fret about how to close the wide disparities that permeate America’s school districts.

"We need to focus on fixing, not closing, neighborhood schools – on stabilizing, not destabilizing, neighborhoods, whether they be in inner cities or rural areas," American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten told CBS News on Friday.

New NAACP head Cornell William Brooks told USA Today on Friday that he plans to "fight to insure voting rights, economic equality, health equity and an end to racial discrimination for all people."

In the “Brown at 60” report, Mr. Orfield urges President Obama to commission a major study looking at the “intimate relationship” between housing and school segregation, as well as “the problems of massive racial change in suburbia,” in order to forestall the deepening racial and class divides in America’s schools.

“There is no evidence that these problems are self-curing,” Mr. Orfield writes.

Meanwhile, Lincoln Heights may more immediately face a harsher future. The school board will decide Monday whether to close the school for the rest of the year, scattering its 200 students to buildings further away from the gunfire. Elected officials will hear public comment at that meeting.

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