For too many Black children like 13-year-old Nehemiah Johnson from south Florida, American schools are not safe places that build confidence or help students feel secure. Instead, they are yet another zone of soul-murdering intimidation and violence.
According to surveillance footage aired by local television news station WTVJ, on May 5, Johnson was attacked by another student’s mother while sitting at a cafeteria table with classmates at the Bethel Seventh Day Adventist private school. His attacker, 33-year-old Kady Ann Sewell, walked inside the school cussing and yelling, and whuppedJohnson in his face, head and arms with a belt. Johnson’s mother, Zendre Pollard, told the news station that he suffered a busted lip and injuries to his arms.
After the beating, Sewell calmly walked out of the school but was later arrested and charged with educational interference, trespassing within a school safety zone and child abuse “without great bodily harm.” Never mind Johnson’s busted lip, injury to his arms and likely welts on his face and head. Because, you know, Black children are believed to have a higher tolerance for pain and darker flesh is considered more resilient.
Sewell allegedly attacked Johnson after he retaliated against Sewell’s son who bullied and fat shamed him.
“My son called and said someone was bullying him, fat shaming him, and he picked up the child and dropped the child back down on his feet,” Pollard said. “My son was being bullied, he defended himself, and then the mom came, and she was hitting on him and whooping on him with a belt.
Yes, you read all of that correctly.
Now read the next sentence slowly so that your brain doesn’t wince: Not only was Pollard’s son bullied by Sewell’s son, but he was also then bullied by his bully’s mama who likely taught her son how to be a bully by bulling him.
While Sewell was attacking Johnson, she told him to “stop hitting my (child).” Let that also sink in.
Something tells me that given the way she wailed on Johnson, she has likely whupped her own son in the same manner. Perhaps she grew up hearing Black folks wax nostalgically about the days when “the village” was allowed to snatch up other people’s kids and whup them when they saw them acting out.
But I digress.
This woman was able to enter a school with ease, belt in hand, hit someone else’s child multiple times without intervention and walk out freely. This happened at a Christian institution where young people are supposed to be learning about loving thy neighbor, turning the other cheek, and forgiveness,right?
That’s a facetious rhetorical question.
I’m not surprised that Sewell is being praised on some social media threads for giving an “old school whupping” to somebody else’s child because you know, “these kids today” are menaces to society despite all the sociological data that begs to differ. But never mind reading comprehension. Never mind public health data. Never mind the fact that children don’t give birth to and raise themselves.
A lot of folks get titillated by watching and sharing Black child abuse porn on social media. This provides an unconscious therapeutic outlet to help them cope with the abuse and / or neglect they experienced in childhood without directly criticizing their parents. And even some of the folks who have expressed outrage over a stranger whupping somebody else’s kid have zero qualms about beating their own child in this manner because they believe that their violence “is the good kind.”
But this story isn’t just about a singular case of one toxic woman’s assault against a Black child at a school. This incident is connected to a much bigger ongoing national problem of race and educational violence.
I know that it is verboten to say this in the Black community, but some Black moms are central actors in perpetuating cycles of trauma and violence which undermine Black children’s intellectual promise, emotional health, and their ability to regulate their emotions and behaviors from environment to environment. And it is time that we have a frank and honest conversation about it without all the defensiveness and deflection and worries about white folks listening.
I’m not at all surprised by this latest incident. It took place within a larger ecosystem of discrimination and brutality against children in education.
We’ve seen lots of headlines about Black students being abused by teachers — including teachers who have cut students’ hair, slapped them in the head, called them the n-word, walked on their backs during a lesson about slavery, threatened them with a lynching for not focusing on schoolwork and yanked and pulled a preschooler by the hair for being sick or sleepy. Videos showing security officers body-slamming students, grabbing and punching them or throwing a girl across a classroom have gone viral in recent years.
Violence in education against Black children is not just perpetrated by white teachers and administrators. Black educators have internalized the idea that young Black bodies deserve punishment and violence. Corporal punishment of public school students is still legal in 18 states. This includes Florida where last year around this time a principal was caught on camera paddling a first-grader in front of her mother and didn’t face any criminal charges. Students are hit by teachers and administrators with wooden boards for minor infractions such as chewing gum, being late to class, talking back to a teacher, rolling their eyes, failing to do homework, violating the dress code, or using the bathroom without permission, as well as for more serious transgressions such as fighting.
The most recent statistics from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights and reports from the ACLU, Human Rights Watch and Indiana University’s Equity Project show that despite a gradual decline in paddling, Black children are likely to be physically punished more frequently than their white peers, even though there’s no significant difference in behavior between the groups. And the top 10 paddling states where large proportions of Black children attend schools where they are routinely hit were also the top 10 lynching states in the early 20th century.
We don’t have any data on how rampant corporal punishment of students is in private and charter schools like the one in Florida, which are not required to report data on spanking students. We do know that corporal punishment in private and charter schools is legal in every state except Iowa and New Jersey. Side note: I attended a Lutheran School in New Jersey where Black parents gave our white teachers and principal permission to beat us if we acted out. Sometimes parents were called to the school if the behavior was especially egregious. I’ll never forget the time a Black mother beat her son in front of the classroom with switches.
Across the country, many parents, teachers and administrators believe a wave of violence in schools is coinciding with city councils and school boards deciding last Spring to remove School Resource Officers amid calls to “defund the police.” Others attribute a rise in students to fighting as a symptom of kids being out of school for a year or two due to the pandemic. Kids are suffering from isolation, a lack of socialization and various kinds of stress. School staff are also seeing parents coming up to schools to cuss out teachers and principals and cuss out teachers and principals. The lack of police presence provides easier access for these kinds of incidents. But the cognitive dissonance not acknowledged in debates over the removal of SROs is the way folks aren’t acknowledging the role that parents play in fostering the culture of bullying which spills over into school life.
We must also address the role that Black women play in this dynamic. YouTube, and other highly trafficked social media sites arefilled with user-generated viral videos of Black women cussing out children, hitting them with belts, shaming them, bullyingthem, embarrassing them at school at PTA meetings, and even beating them in front of teachers. In some of these videos, moms cuss at and threaten to beat their children for bullying other children. The irony!
While 13-year-old Nehemiah Johnson recovers from being beaten by his bully’s mother, Kady Ann Sewell, and schools profess their opposition to bullying, generations of violence are being perpetuated in the guise of education. Black America is deeply impacted: not only are Black students reportedly more likely to receive the harshest punishments, but Black America’s attachment to corporal punishment as a solution to behavioral issues and the popularity of the outdated notion of discipline-by-village-elders are weaponizing white supremacist programming and practices against our vulnerable children. And when some of these mothers are arrested, their children are often turned over to the state for care, thus priming them for the prison pipeline.
The culture of anti-Black racism and intergenerational bullying promises nothing but unbroken cycles of trauma, dysfunction,and pain. This problem is growing, and the issue is worsening with the popularity of videos of frustrated Black mothers using abusive parenting practices to get their children, and other people’s children in line.
We can’t ignore the fact Sewell likely turned her son into the bully who humiliated Johnson. And when Johnson, the victim,tried to defend himself, she marched up to the school to attack him with a belt. Corporal punishment doesn’t belong in any educational setting, and yet it’s allowed throughout most of this nation. This is the modern version of the plantation overseer wielding the whip to threaten and punish enslaved people who were considered uncooperative or unruly.
Let’s stop this terror and trauma, break the patterns of abuse, and talk about how we can decolonize the rearing and education of Black children. If they truly are our future, why are we so intent on making them suffer? And when will adults take responsibility for breaking the chains?
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