Dog Whistles in Aptos Middle School Article

Racist Tropes Reinforce Racism, They Don’t Improve Public Schools

On Valentine’s Day this year, the San Francisco Chronicle published a column written by Heather Knight regarding Aptos Middle School (‘Lord of the Flies’). It was hardly a love letter.

Portraying a school in chaos run by savage children— the article title seemed more interested in being clickbait than it was in addressing real issues. Just check out the trailer of the 1963 adaptation of the book to see what I mean:

Superintendent Matthews immediately flagged problems with the framing of the article and penned a response. Coleman Advocates for Children a Youth, an organization that works to empower youth and family voice also responded to problematic portrayals of youth in the article.

For those who are confused about claims that Knight’s article had racist undertones, you can listen to the podcast. Here are some of the problematic details Knight used in describing her experiences visiting the school:

“Adults clearly had no control over the kids as they went from one class to the next. Kids were shoving each other, punching each other, yelling, eating chicken… that was just so random… listening to music, talking on their phones. And the adults just had no control over them at all.”

The fact that this description is prefaced with a description of the school being situated in a “leafy” neighborhood with “stately homes” is troubling when she then states that the reason the school is in “chaos” is somehow related to “integration” efforts, and the fact that there are many kids coming from low-income communities, (she mentions Carver and Starr King) who have single parents, lots of trauma and few male role models.

These descriptors are dog whistles. It is really unfortunate framing because it demonizes Black/Brown/low-income children and the schools they attend. In reality, no one I’ve spoken to sees race as a factor in any of the bullying that families are reporting.

Dog whistles may sell papers, but they don’t stop bullying

So now, much of the conversation about Knight’s article has taken focus away from that issue — bullying in middle schools — and made many families feel they are being called racist for merely bringing their concerns to District administration.

The reality is there were basically six kids who’ve been bullying students, out of a thousand at the school. That is a very small percentage.

To be clear: I understand all too well that if your kid gets bullied, it doesn’t matter what the numbers are. And, I don’t think the administration has been effective at making those families feel heard. But the article reaches for easy, racist themes rather than work to bring light to the issues that lead to bullying.

We should be asking how we can support the Aptos Middle School community instead of spreading fear about San Francisco schools and perpetuating racist tropes about public schools

A few days after the article appeared, I visited Aptos. I saw nothing of what Knight described as disrespectful teens, or disorganized passing periods, (or chicken eating). I even had the pleasure of watching a chess tournament in action! Unfortunately, Knight’s article made it look like kids are running through the halls with a boar’s head on a stake. This is decidedly NOT happening!

The Aptos community is working hard with District leaders to address safety concerns. I and other Board Members are committed to helping Aptos become an even better school.

Unfortunately, news stories like Knight’s create negative perceptions that criminalize low-income students of color and cause prospective families to not enroll their children in the school — causing even bigger budget woes long after problems are resolved.

The Real Story

Knight’s coverage does a big disservice to the REAL STORY which is: We can’t have safe schools if we don’t adequately resource and support educators!

I agree with many parents that central office administrators do often give families the feeling they are being brushed off (it happens to me!) when we challenge them to answer parent/student concerns.

One parent I spoke to at the school said, “The article wasn’t the language I would want to use,” but emphasized many families felt they had tried to no avail to get a response to their concerns. Teachers also shared frustration with the article, stating they their comments were mischaracterized. This academic coach even stated the article includes flat-out fabrication. This is hard to understand when students, families and educators are saying the same thing, which has gotten lost in all this controversy. They say a school as big and diverse as Aptos NEEDS EXTRA SUPPORT!

And this is exactly what students are asking for! More therapists, social workers and school nurses! Fair rules and consequences and more spaces for students to feel safe! Students do not need more punishment as many misinformed Twitter and NextDoor commenters are saying.

A Middle School in Need of Investment

Aptos is a normal middle school, not crazy or in “chaos.” Like many middle schools, the administration (both at the site and centrally) seem to be struggling to respond to parent, student, and teacher concerns when bullying happens.

Let us please work together to support and invest in this school! Let’s hold the District (including Board Members like me!) accountable for improving safety in ALL our schools! And in the meantime, let’s also share some of the amazing work that students, families and teachers are doing at Aptos!

I’m closing with a picture of two wonderful educators leading the chess tournament between Francisco and Aptos Middle Schools. On the left is Wilson Skinner (Francisco) and center is Clermont Claude (Aptos). Please help elevate the good things happening at the school as well! Let’s invest in this wonderful school community!

mom of twins. education nerd. public school warrior. reformed cat-lady. amateur urbanist. social justice addict. BLERD. & most recently Board of Ed Commissioner