PerspectivesNikesha Elise Williams Jacksonville Today Contributor

OPINION | The playground is the battleground 

Published on March 13, 2024 at 7:27 pm

Once upon a time children attended school to learn the three R’s: reading, ’riting and ’rithmetic. Plus science and history. At the time, they were not in conflict with partisan political ideology but based on settled facts, however incomplete in scope and perspective. But now, while schools still engage in these very basic functions, public schools are increasingly becoming battlegrounds, the first sites for the politically ambitious to consolidate control, starting with an audience of young minds that have not developed critical thinking skills to interrogate what they’re being told.

Between the urgings from outsiders to give the teachers guns (those who want them, anyway) to stave off mass shooters, to the Florida surgeon general’s “deferring to parents or guardians to make decisions about school attendance” for measles patients, I am dismayed about the overall lackadaisical safety policies in effect for my and all of Florida’s children. Add to that the continued cultural attacks on education with the cuts to diversity, equity, and inclusion programs, as well as the latest settlement over Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law (Apparently you can say “gay” you just can’t teach it), and the words I once associated with school  — freedom, safety, learning, curiosity — I no longer do. 

If American democracy is giving its last gasps, and the descent into autocracy and authoritarianism is as imminent as the November election, it comes as no surprise to me that schools would be the first place that those desperate to ascend to despots would look to inflict their reign. 

The concept of arming teachers is as harmful to me as are the slate of laws passed across the country to expand the definition of domestic terrorism and hate crimes in order to surveil and arrest protesters. On their face, some of these laws are knee-jerk reactions to prevent another January 6 or Dollar General shooting or the continued murderous targeting of the LGBTQIA+ community. But what they really do is give governing powers more control over the very communities they say they want to protect, like filing domestic terror charges against those who protest capital projects like “cop city” police training facilities. (There’re more than just the one under construction in Atlanta). 

Arming teachers in addition to having armed security and other types of law enforcement within a public school militarizes educational institutions, forcing students to learn, play, and make mistakes under the threat of a bullet. There have been enough viral videos of school authorities body slamming, choking, and being bodily violent toward students without adding the threat of a gun. Students shouldn’t have to learn under such pressure. 

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What we should be asking is not how to “harden” our schools, which are considered soft targets, but how to reduce the number of guns, easily available in our communities, from reaching the hands of those with extraordinary mental illness and/or unadulterated hate in their heart.

Guns are not the only threat students face. The threat of disease runs rampant in schools, from hand, foot, and mouth at the daycare to measles and COVID at elementary and beyond. Yet, time and again, the Florida surgeon general bucks all medical evidence and advises against the very safeguards that keep children safe and eradicate disease. It’s as if Joseph Ladapo is in a race to prove how maverick he can be with how many children are sickened in schools because of his poor and medically unsound advice. 

As a parent, my child’s physical safety is absolutely of my utmost concern and yet it seems as if this state’s current administration is only concerned about whether a child’s mind is kept safe from what it deems immoral by its conservative Christian nationalism, or as has been the term du jour, woke. 

The assault on diversity, equity, and inclusion programs at state universities is the latest in a long list of policies aimed at defanging the blunt bites of history against American folklore and mythology. An assault that will eventually be left up to judges or even justices to decide, as they recently did, by clarifying the limits of the Parental Rights in Education law through a settlement agreement

These issues of health, safety, and what can and cannot be taught in schools are more than just culture wars of the moment. They are a real-time tug-of-war between who we are and who we aspire to be. Who we’ve been and who we can become. That is why the playground is the primary place for politicos seeking supremacy. If you can captivate the minds of children you can groom generations of supporters to spout harm for you. 

It’s the reason why dystopian novels such as Ray Bradbury’s Farenheit 451 and George Orwell’s 1984 ring more and more true. Not only are we teaching by our action but we’re legislating in our policy that war is peace by advocating for more guns in school. That freedom is slavery by insisting that learning about people’s quests for liberation will force others into a life of bondage to formerly marginalized communities, because it’s not as if white supremacy is being challenged. It’s the fear that it will be replaced. And, finally. that ignorance is strength, because if you can keep the people from thinking on their own and questioning authority, power is not only consolidated, cultivated, and maintained by the ruling class but it is reinforced by those subjugated and trying to make a way beneath oppression. 

In an age where we can see multiple genocides happening in real time on all our social media timelines and streamed on our television screens, we should be just as aware, angry, and rallying against the culturcide happening in our schools. The term “culturicide” was coined by Polish attorney Raphael Lemkin, who said, “Physical and biological genocide are always preceded by cultural genocide or by an attack on the symbols of the group or by violent interference with religious or cultural activities.”

It’s not a culture war, it’s a culturcide, and we’re allowing it to happen in our schools unchecked by giving over the health, safety and the sanctity of public education to those who only have their own power interests at heart. 

But go ahead and close your eyes and agree that it’s a good thing that Florida is “where woke goes to die.” 

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor

Nikesha Elise Williams is an Emmy-winning TV producer, award-winning novelist (Beyond Bourbon Street and Four Women) and the host/producer of the Black & Published podcast. Her bylines include The Washington Post, ESSENCE, and Vox. She lives in Jacksonville with her family.

author image Jacksonville Today Contributor

Nikesha Elise Williams is an Emmy-winning TV producer, award-winning novelist (Beyond Bourbon Street and Four Women) and the host/producer of the Black & Published podcast. Her bylines include The Washington Post, ESSENCE, and Vox. She lives in Jacksonville with her family.

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