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yvonne abraham

A school’s pride, punishment

What’s a principal to do?

There is much to love about so many Boston high school students walking out of classes in recent weeks to protest the failings of the justice system. This is what great educators want, what we all want: Kids who feel passionately about what is wrong with the world and believe they can change it.

On the other hand, a school day is a school day. And you can’t just have kids marching out of class, no matter how noble the cause.

So when the e-mail arrived on the morning of Dec. 1, Thabiti Brown, principal of Codman Academy, was conflicted. “Our nation is at a critical time,” read the student’s anonymous note. “It is important that youth get involved because that is how you create revolutions.” Inspired by demonstrations across the country, students were going to walk out at noon, the e-mailer said, to protest the fact that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson had not been indicted in the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

“My first reaction was huge pride,” the principal said. Codman Academy is all about understanding the world to make it a better place. However, Brown said, that first flush of delight “was quickly followed by, ‘Uh oh.’ ”

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As students gathered outside the school, Brown told them they were taking a risk, that cutting class has consequences at Codman — demerits or detention or possible suspension. Some of the kids told him they’d take that chance. That, too, filled him with pride — and trepidation. Others went back inside, especially the ones who got an earful after Brown had them call their parents. In all, 102 of the upper school’s 145 students headed off to a Boston Common protest.

For many at Codman, where 98 percent of students are black and Hispanic, the failings of the justice system are personal. “Our students get stopped regularly by the police, just for walking down the street,” Brown said.

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Brown, too, has felt the sting of that imbalance. As a young black man in Brooklyn, the principal, now 38, was stopped on the street and patted down because he fit the description of somebody who had committed a crime. He has been followed around malls. Back then, his father imparted the lessons so many black boys hear growing up, with an urgency parents of white boys don’t need: Be extra respectful of the police, even if you’re being treated unfairly; always show your hands.

Brown, who has a 7-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son, will have to teach those lessons to his younger child, too.

“He needs to know the cops are going to look at him differently because he has brown skin . . . to survive,” Brown said. “And that is painful for me.”

It’s painful for many of us. Perhaps we’ve arrived at a moment here, one that goes beyond the deaths of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York, one that will force us to contemplate the prisons bursting with men of color, the lopsided stop-and-frisk statistics, the prosecutors who seem loath to push for the indictments of white police officers. Perhaps here is a groundswell that will transform the justice system.

The kids who marched out of Codman Academy that day think so. But ask Brown if he thinks this is a moment, and he isn’t sure. “I don’t know,” he said, his eyes welling. “I’ve seen too many of us killed. Change is hard, and it takes a long time.’’

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Future marches — or at least the weekday ones — will happen without Codman students, however. Those who walked out on Dec. 1 got calls home and demerit points. Cutting class normally brings detention, but that wasn’t practical with so many kids involved. They were warned that more serious discipline would follow if they did it again.

Some may still risk it. Because even in the face of clear injustice, and incredibly long odds, most of Brown’s students aren’t cynical. They still think they can change the world.

If they don’t lose that belief, they just might.


Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com