If I had a nickel for every time someone called my high school “ghetto” I would be able to retire by now. In truth, our building was written up in Architectural Digest when it was first built and our school had amazing teachers and students. Yet, as a result of changing community demographics our school was no longer thought of as a “good school.” As Graham Couch, a fellow alum wrote:
“It was diverse scholastically, economically, racially, every which way. Its students and teachers were more a snapshot of the actual world than most places could offer…The view from elsewhere, as I often heard it, saw Sexton as a tough building, its diversity not necessarily considered a strength.”
Last week, community members and alumni of my high school gathered to welcome back students after a tragedy. Earlier in the week three students were ambushed and shot in the neighborhood by the school. The incident did nothing to help our reputation, in fact it reinforced many of the stereotypes people had.
When I was reading the coverage of the event I began to compare the narrative of Sexton’s tragedy to other school shootings. Fault for violence in an urban environment is often laid with the communities and people. Yet, rarely in mass school shootings, like Columbine or Newtown, does the media blame the environment. You don’t see people moving out of the suburbs or rural areas because they believe they are “dangerous for their kids.” Yet, statistically, mass shootings are more likely to happen in those settings. As Richard Florida points out in his article on the subject:
“By our accounting, more than 80 percent of America’s 21 worst mass killings identified by the Hartford Courant took place in suburban towns or rural areas, including each and every one of what the paper identifies as the five “worst school massacres in U.S. history.” More than two-thirds of the 61 mass shootings that occurred between 1982 and 2012 according to a list and map compiled this year by Mother Jones can also be traced to a suburban or rural location.”
He offers an explanation for this trend:
“Urban public schools are much more diverse across racial and ethnic lines. Yes, there is fighting and bullying like anywhere, but kids can view them less as personal attacks and more as group behavior. And often times, kids band together along these racial and ethnic lines. Just the opposite is likely in schools in more affluent suburban areas. Not only are these schools more economically advantaged, they tend to be much more homogenous. Since everyone is more or less “the same,” kids who are picked on are more likely to feel personally victimized. There is little to help diffuse the resulting anger or anxiety, so it festers and feeds off itself.”
Suburbs are incredibly effective at creating social isolation. They are usually absent of shared community space and activities that build a sense of community. Yet rarely do we talk about the “dangers of suburbia” in the same way we focus on the “dangers of the city.”
This media bias has a terrible impact on the lives of city dwellers. The perception of my school as a decrepit, violent, slum couldn’t have been further from the truth, but it started to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The decline of Sexton was accelerated in 1996 when Michigan passed “Schools of Choice,” which allowed students to choose which school they attended regardless of what district they lived in.
Seven miles away from Sexton, just outside of the city limits you can find Holt High School. Inside, the walls sport large flat screen TVs and every classroom is equipped with the latest technology. It’s easy to see why a parent might choose that school over my alma mater where there sometimes aren’t enough textbooks to allow students to take them home. And so Holt got students, active and supportive parents, and funding while Sexton lost the resources they needed to improve education for their students. The disparities between the two widened.
Theoretically, school choice programs are supposed to encourage competition. Yet when one side gets to choose their players and the other must make do with what’s left, how can you compete? Since students elect to go to a school outside of their district, the school isn’t obligated to accept them. That means schools can kick out children for discipline issues, sending them back to their original school. “Good” schools can choose the cream of the crop, which boosts their test scores and furthers the impression that their school is better, which attracts more funding and students.
The combination of policy, media bias, and community perception is harmful to both students who stay in schools like Sexton and move to schools like Holt. Diversity is the strength of Sexton — students benefit from being around people of diverse backgrounds, race, class, and viewpoints. People who move out of the district miss out on that. The media reaction to the shootings at our school furthers the segregation of our educational system and that makes no one safer. As my sister wrote after she learned of the violence, “Sexton is great school full of good kids in a peaceful community. I need to start seeing more news about that, not this.”