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At a school in Illinois, employees locked children in what they called “the office.”
Last year, the state’s Department of Children and Family Services opened investigations into 21 allegations of child abuse at Gages Lake School, which enrolls children with behavioral and emotional special needs. Its subsequent report, based on a review of video recordings as well as interviews, describes employee conduct that included “grabbing children by the wrists, shoving them into walls and throwing them to the ground.”
One teacher told the agency, “None of the children at the school are safe.”
Reports such as this make it impossible to dismiss other incidents, such as the six-year-old who police put in handcuffs at a Florida school last fall or the Kansas City elementary student who was arrested for making a gun symbol with her fingers as oddities. Considering these events, along with the tragic school shootings in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, TX, in 2018, parents, educators, and policymakers must continue to evaluate appropriate measures of school discipline and student safety.
Still, some cases—such as Illinois’ Gages Lake, and others—are easier to condemn.
Take Colson Whitehead’s latest novel, The Nickel Boys, released last summer. But for these examples from Illinois, Florida, and Missouri, the book could be seen as a story of a bygone era. Based on reports from the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, a former juvenile detention center and orphanage located 60 miles west of Tallahassee, Nickel tells of the brutal—murderous, even—life for boys at the fictional Nickel Academy. Some were sentenced to learn the error of their ways, but instead were bent “all kind of ways until you were unfit for straight life, good and twisted by the time you left.”
And that’s if they survived. Dozier/Nickel closed in 2011, but one year later, archeologists from the University of South Florida began finding the bodies.
NPR reports that nearly 100 boys died while in custody there, most in the 1950s and 1960s. According to former inmates, many of these deaths were homicides. Guards buried some of the remains in unmarked graves on the property.
The novel unfolds during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, but Whitehead’s account is more than a saga of racial injustice. Nickel is a meditation on the existence of pain and the search for meaning in life when some people suffer more than others.
Turner is one of Whitehead’s main characters, and as he reflects on his time at Nickel, the author writes, “The way Turner saw it, wickedness went deeper than skin color. It was Spencer [Nickel’s administrator]…and it was all the parents who let their children wind up here. It was people.”
We can naturally wrestle with these ideas alongside Whitehead’s characters because, as George Will wrote in his review of Nickel Boys, “Whitehead never raises his authorial voice,” which “enhances its wallop.”
Whitehead’s characters wrestle with the “capacity to suffer,” looking for “the ultimate decency that lived in every human heart.” Ultimately, most of the boys in the book, and presumably in reality, did the only thing they could do under the circumstances: “They endured.”
NPR reported that in 2008, then-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist “ordered state investigators to look into the allegations of abuse, torture and deaths at the school,” but officers said they “couldn’t find enough evidence.”
Nickel’s story is clearly one of abuse, and the arrest described above of a six-year-old is certainly troubling. We should watch for more examples of the latter. In our current school discipline policy climate, schools must find their way along the spectrum between restorative justice ideas and zero-tolerance policies. The former leave open the potential for dangerous students to remain in the classroom, while the latter put small children in handcuffs.
Educators should find their way using rigorous research and careful judgment. Meanwhile, grace and mercy give meaning to the “problem of pain,” as C.S. Lewis wrote. “Pain” he observed, “provides an opportunity for heroism.” No one should have to accept injustice, but it is nothing short of heroic to endure it without hatred.
Jonathan Butcher is a senior policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy.Published in