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What peers of the 'thugs' have to say

Susan Notes: This is good news because student voices are heard. Kudos to the newspaper and the teacher for making this happen. Now the next step is to hear not just from students enrolled in honors classes but from the "thugs" themselves.

By Hardy Thames and Joni Laney

William K. Richardson, the Frayser High School teacher who wrote a "My Thoughts" column about the Memphis City Schools "thug" problem in the Viewpoints section Oct. 1, identified an important issue: how to keep order in schools while promoting the learning that also needs to happen there. MCS Supt. Carol Johnson is attempting to make the student/teacher relationship more humane by requiring parental contact and conversation.

These very requirements too often prevent teachers from disciplining students who need to be removed from classrooms immediately. However, expelling our "thugs" is an overly simplistic solution. And unfair.

We polled one of Mr. Thames' classes with this question: "How many of you have been considered a thug by your teachers and principals?" (No, they did not see the label as a compliment.) Ten of a class of 30 students said they had been, some as early as the first grade. They are now 11th and 12th graders who are the most normal kids you'd have the pleasure of meeting.

They are, however, members of a culture that glamorizes crime, violence, drugs and all things material. To call this culture "thug" is to give it color and demography and it is irresponsible. We can see the same symptoms of this problem in poor white populations.

Mr. Richardson's solution would solve his problem: The thugs would be removed from his school. Shifting the problem to the streets and then to the prisons, then back to the streets again, doesn't sell. There has to be an option for them that ties them back into society.

So what is the solution? This is what Mr. Thames' honors U.S. government class at Central High had to say Oct. 3 about Mr. Richardson's article. The students are black and white, rich and poor, from neighborhoods and middle schools all over Memphis. The one thing they all have in common is that they are college bound and are determined to be leaders.

Kemecia, 17: I agree with Mr. Richardson that some kids don't need to be in school. But a lot of these problems don't apply to all Memphis City Schools. I've seen a lot of people join gangs for acceptance because they don't feel accepted at home, or sell drugs because they don't have enough money in their pocket. Their focus is basically surviving. Mr. Richardson needs to look at the background problems.

Jennifer M., 16: I've seen most of the things he's talking about, guns, students cursing teachers. I've met some of the best teachers in these schools and they try to help kids, but the kids just don't get it. You have to wonder what's going on at home. Many of these kids don't even have parents.

Brandon H., 17: But all that stuff is learned and calling them a "non-student" and putting them in jail only makes it worse. The key is trying to get them to become a better student.

Casia J., 17: But some students do need to be removed because they are disturbing the learning environment.

Leslie B., 18: Kicking them out (of school) just continues the cycle. Without an education they are almost certain to end up being poor and having kids who are raised poor.

Tyree L., 17: It's bigger than the parents. It's the neighborhood and someone stepping in or not. For me, my mother's school, where she works, stepped in. Few kids in really bad neighborhoods have that.

Jasmine E., 18: And kids are trying to raise each other. Anybody can influence you when you have nothing to do and no adult to talk with.

Cameron G., 18: If a teacher treats kids like thugs and calls them thugs, they will fulfill this prophecy. Also, you have (psychologist Abraham) Maslow's hierarchy of needs, which is a series of stages, the most basic is food and sleep. If you don't have these, then education doesn't work and you don't have a good relationship with family and friends. Next is housing, many kids don't have this. Another thing is stress. A lot of kids live in constant stress and they react to the stress.

Richard H., 18: I think it starts with leadership. W.E.B. DuBois spoke of the talented tenth in the black community lifting the rest out. And, it's not just black people living in poverty. Many whites, Latinos and Asians do, too.

Cameron G., 18: The media completely glorifies violence, killing, gangs and drugs. And huge corporations like Sony are putting this stuff out, condoning people getting their guns and killing people and doing drugs. It's really hard for young people to see through these lies.

Howard G., 17: As far as music, how many times do you see a music video and hear where somebody says, "Oh, I got A's in school"? Everybody's gonna be like, "Oh, I shot somebody and got some drugs." You're not hearing people glorifying doing well ("I got a good job"). No, it's "I'm in a gang and I got status." Whether you're poor or middle class, that's what's glorified on TV. What do you think kids are gonna do?

Hardy Thames teaches U.S. government and Facing History and Ourselves, and Joni Laney teaches English at Central High School in Memphis.

— Hardy Thames and Joni Laney
Commercial Appeal


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