School that took kindergarteners for jail visit missed the point
MARY MITCHELL email@example.com Twitter: @MaryPg14 April 19, 2012 7:06PM
Six-year-old Stephen Stovall went on a school field trip which included a visit inside a police station jail cell, much to the displeasure of his grandmother, Flora Ware. Photographed onTuesday, April 17, 2012 in Berkeley. | Sun-Times~Richard A. Chapman
Updated: May 21, 2012 8:58AM
On Thursday, Hillside Police Chief Joe Lukaszek defended his department giving the kindergarten class of Sunnyside Elementary School a tour of the police department last Monday.
When 6-year-old Stephen Stovall told his mother and grandmother his class had been locked in a jail cell, they were outraged.
“I reviewed videotape. Not one single kid was placed in a jail cell,” Lukaszek told me. “I think the young man was in our holding area.”
The police chief acknowledged that the “holding area” has bars.
“That makes it a jail cell,” countered the boy’s grandmother, Flora Ware. “If it has bars and you can see through them and put your arms through them, it’s a jail cell.”
But this family says their issue is with the school, not the police department.
A school field trip — which according to a consent form parents signed was purportedly to Hillside Village Hall and the library — ended up including a tour of the jail.
“I want to deal with the root of the problem. The focus here is not the police department. The focus is the school,” Ware said. “The police department did not go over there and get my child and put him on a bus and take him to a jail cell.”
Obviously, some parents may have no problem with their 6-year-old taking a tour of a jail, even one that includes being placed behind bars.
But I understand why some parents are outraged.
African-American parents, in particular, are keenly aware that because too many black men are under the control of the criminal justice system, black children are exposed to negative stereotypes at a fairly early age.
The last thing a black parent wants is to reinforce in the mind of a black child that a jail cell could be in his or her future.
More importantly, because even law-abiding black males often grow up in an environment where they are routinely profiled by police as suspicious or dangerous, a lot of black parents are not as trusting as other parents when it comes to the police.
Ware argues that neither she nor the boy’s mother gave permission for her 6-year-old grandson to take a tour of a jail, or to be placed in a “holding area” with bars.
On Thursday, she and Stephen’s mother, along with the Rev. Gregory Stanton, met with Sunnyside’s principal, Nancy Tortoro, and Berkeley School District 87 Superintendent Eva Smith.
“Neither one saw anything wrong with what happened,” said Ware. “The superintendent told me we take these trips all the time. The meeting didn’t last a good five minutes. We spent more time waiting for her than in a meeting.”
As with earlier attempts, Tortoro and Smith did not return phone calls seeking comment. The pastor who attended Thursday’s meeting and has a granddaughter in the class that visited the jail, described the school officials as “completely unapologetic.”
“There was no apology from the teacher, and there was no apology from Dr. Smith. They called it an approved trip and said we can write a letter,” Stanton complained.
“It’s been a real strange circumstance, and we are going to pursue this at the next school board meeting,” the pastor vowed.
Ware said her grandson’s teacher told her that Stephen’s kindergarten class also visited the mayor and all the different departments in village hall. Ware said the teacher told her during the meeting that the kids were asked: “Who wants to go in a jail cell? Raise your hands.”
Frankly, the response of school administrators to Ware’s concerns is disheartening.
The issue is quite simple. Any parent who didn’t want their kindergartner to go on the field trip to the jail should have been allowed to opt out.
These officials failed to follow their own rules and to provide full disclosure.
There was a good reason for the parental approval form.