By Jamie Longazel
A video of a Hazleton Area High School that shows student of color having her head slammed onto a table by a school police officer went viral in early February.
The community – particularly Latina moms, who are all-too-familiar with their children experiencing mistreatment of this sort in the Hazleton Area School District – has been in an uproar since.
As a Hazleton Area High School graduate and author of a book about how local leaders fueled anti-immigrant sentiment in Hazleton, I’ve been watching this case closely and working alongside those community members.
We’re demanding answers and reforms. But have yet to get any.
Over the past two decades, Hazleton’s demographics shifted quite rapidly. Ninety-five percent of the city’s residents identified as white in 2000. Today, among students enrolled in the HASD, 44.8 percent identify as white (5,021 students) and 51.1 percent as Hispanic (5,731 students).
While the Hazleton Area School Board has had plenty of time to hire more Hispanic teachers – especially bilingual teachers – they have failed to make this a priority, carrying on the unwelcoming legacy the city forged in 2006 when it famously passed the unconstitutional Illegal Immigration Relief Act.
Not to mention the school board’s long-standing reputation for playing favorites when it comes to hiring.
According to the most recent data, a whopping 98.6 percent of HASD teachers identify as White. This number represents just a 1 percent improvement in teacher diversity from 2013.
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Yet only five teachers – 0.6 percent – identify as Hispanic. That’s one Hispanic teacher for every 1,146 Hispanic students.
This lack of diversity coupled with, as I’ve written elsewhere, a lingering tendency to see Latinx students as suspects rather than scholars, it is no surprise that the district suffers from stark disparities in their disciplinary practices.
According to 2015 civil rights data from the Department of Education, Hispanics and other students of color (who, combined, accounted for 52 percent of all students at the time) represented 72 percent of HASD’s in-school suspensions, 69.1 percent of its out-of-school suspensions, and all eight (100 percent) of the students the district expelled.
Despite these glaring problems, the school board has been ostentatiously unwilling to listen to the community’s demands.
On Feb. 12, I was part of a coalition of community members and local activists who held a rally in frigid temperatures outside of the school’s administration building.
After the rally, we packed the school board meeting. And more than a dozen of us took to the podium to express our frustration with the District’s lack of action on the case. It was heartening to watch the community stand up for itself, yet infuriating to see the Board’s lack of concern.
Hazleton School Superintendent Brian Uplinger began the meeting with a statement that hardly addressed the issue. To his credit, he promised that school police officers would receive some additional training, but not once did he express concern about the officers’ actions despite twice reprimanding violence among students.
Uplinger, it’s worth noting, has very little experience dealing with a diverse student body. He came to Hazleton after his contract at Central Greene School District was not renewed. Central Greene’s enrollment is about one-sixth the size of the Hazleton district and roughly 97 percent of its students identify as White.
As that meeting wore on, Hazleton school board members were noticeably inattentive.
On more than one occasion, members got up to take cell phone calls in the middle of concerned residents’ testimony. The board’s president, Robert Fiume, brazenly put on his coat and walked out the door without explanation while a young Latina woman who recently graduated from Hazleton Area High School passionately testified about her challenging high school experience.
Separately, nearly 1,000 high school alumni signed a letter submitted to Uplinger and Director of Security & Police Services Ed Harry calling for the suspension of the officer involved. After multiple requests, the letter-writers have yet to receive a reply.
The coalition that has been fighting for justice in this case remains united. They showed up again at the HASB meeting last Thursday and plan to continue to do so until their demands are met. And fortunately, the incident has prompted four Latinas to run for a seat on the school board in the upcoming election.
But unfortunately, these problems remain endemic across the state and the country. Students of color continue to be brutalized by school police officers, continue to be disproportionately disciplined and disciplined more harshly, and continue to be prepared not for careers, but for prison.
We all still have a long way to go.
Jamie Longazel is an associate professor at John Jay College, City University of New York. He is also the author of “Undocumented Fears: Immigration and the Politics of Divide and Conquer in Hazleton, Pennsylvania” and the co-founder of Anthracite Unite. You can learn more about his work at www.JamieLongazel.com and follow him on Twitter, @Jlongazel.
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