The debate program at [The School] officially began today when I showed up at 1:45 to introduce eight or so kids in a social studies class to the game. I was very nervous going in, but it went well.
I tried to start off by playing a recent NPR report about the KC Central debate squad, but the students' eyes glazed over, so I jumped right in.
"This year's topic is about civil liberties," I said. "Freedom. Your rights. And the government's control of your rights. And one of the ways government can control your rights is with cops."
Then I asked, "What do you all think of cops?"
The response was overwhelmingly negative. The kids started telling stories about how they'd been harrassed, and how their relatives had been harrassed, and their neighbors, all of which I expected to hear. More than one student said they knew someone who had been shot by the police. Others said they'd known people who'd been arrested for not cooperating with police, for not being a "snitch." I started writing their comments on an old chalk board.
We got a couple of charitable comments about police officers -- they're not all bad, some of them are from the community -- and I wrote these on the left side of the board, opposite the list of negatives, which was getting quite long.
There was a dominant theme: Cops stop these kids and their friends and family because they're black or Hispanic and they live in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.
For the sake of an argument, I suggested that maybe it's a good thing the cops stop folks in these neighborhoods, because that's where all the crime is. If it works to catch criminals, isn't that a good thing?
No! They all said.
Then one kid, the only boy in the class, explained that if cops do that they won't get the right guy all the time.
"Ok," I said. "What can we do to make cops good?"
I divided them into two groups and had them come up with two strategies to do this. One group suggested that cops need to get more involved in the community. The other said that cops should be punished more severely for their transgressions. And I mean severely.
"They need to get shot just like us!"
"If they can use tasers on us, we should get to use tasers on them!"
"They should have to meet with the PO," one said, referring to parole officers, more than likely from experience.
I had them write down a couple of points about how to carry out their plans, and why they would work.
Then we had a debate, me against them.
They gave speeches -- sometimes all at once -- making a case for what should be done.
Then I got up and said that if cops get more involved with communities, they might make friends with criminals and let them go free, and then crime will increase. And I said if cops were punished as a severely as criminals, no one would want to be a cop, and then there'd be no one to stop crime, and we would all die.
I could barely finish before they were all up out of their seats, telling me why my arguments were no good.
About 40 minutes into the class, a couple of the students promptly disengaged and started playing on computers in the back of the room. Then a couple more joined them. I was left with three students who wanted to keep going.
"So how do I join this debate team?" one of them asked.
"You're already on it," I said.