Dunham's poetry on racism, read at 'hoodie rally,' exemplifies his belief that education is 'the last equalizer'
New London - Roland Dunham remembers what his father taught him while he was growing up in Toledo, Ohio: If you get pulled over by the police, keep your hands on the steering wheel and don't make any sudden movements.
It was a lesson he took to heart and one that came in handy in the early 1990s, when he said he was pulled over 15 times in a 12-month period by New London police.
"I started getting angry,'' Dunham said. "And I almost did something stupid. But then I realized I had the opportunity to do something intelligent.''
He began to write. He compiled some of his work in a book called "Thoughts: The Poetic Perspective Of A Black Man.'' When he could not find a publisher, he published the book himself in 1996. He sold all 750 copies.
Last Sunday, a friend read one of his poems at a hoodie rally in New London, which was organized to protest the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager in Florida who was walking down a residential street.
The poem "Connecticut" is about racism in the north. The poem says, in part, "... if you're Black and want to stay in Connecticut, Spend your money but stay out of sight.''
Dunham has worked in the New London school system for nearly 10 years, first teaching English at the high school and then serving as dean of students there until he transferred last year to Bennie Dover Jackson Middle School, where he is the vice principal.
"I talk to kids constantly about responsibility,'' he said. "I tell them you have to tell the truth. You have to be honest."
He tells them to steer clear of the criminal lifestyle, keep their heads down, and study.
"Education is the last equalizer in America,'' he said. He encourages all his students to aim for college.
Principal Alison Ryan said Dunham is a fascinating guy, from the story of how he recovered from a broken back after falling on a submarine while working at Electric Boat, to his love of Shakespeare, which he discovered at Connecticut College when he returned to school after his injury.
"The kids really respect him," she said. "He doesn't befriend them, he leads them."
He expects a lot from the students, she said.
"But he's also very compassionate and understands where they've come from," she said.
Dunham, who now lives in Cranston, R.I., understands the obstacles facing inner-city teens and knows from his own experience as a minority that things can go wrong quickly when dealing with police.
His own run-in with New London police resulted in a lawsuit. In 1993, he sued the police department, alleging his civil rights were violated when he was pulled over several times without cause. In one incident, he said, the officer who pulled him over for speeding wrote on the ticket that he was white. When Dunham pointed out he was not white, the officer threw his license and registration at him and said, "Today you're white." The speeding ticket was not prosecuted.
When he complained to police officials, Dunham discovered the department had a file on him, even though he'd never been arrested. He said he settled his lawsuit with the city and the terms are confidential.
At the time, he channeled his frustrations by writing and returning to school, earning an associate's degree from Three Rivers Community College, a bachelor's degree from Eastern Connecticut State University, and master's degrees from Connecticut College and the University of Scranton.
While at Connecticut College, he met Julian Stafford, then superintendent of New London schools. Stafford told him he should work in the New London schools.
Although it's been years since police have bothered the now 47-year-old educator, he said he hears stories every day from his young students. One said a police officer stopped him on the street and asked for a receipt for the jacket he was wearing, saying it was too expensive and he must have stolen it.
"It was just harassment,'' Dunham said.
Good cops must speak out
The hoodie rally, and the reading of Dunham's poem at it, comes at a time when the NAACP and others are questioning the police department's treatment of minorities.
Dunham believes a New London police officer overreacted when he shot an unarmed man who had crashed a stolen ice truck last summer. The officer was subsequently fired.
After seeing a video of a police officer dropping something during a traffic stop, he also believes the officer planted drugs on a man with a criminal record.
But Dunham is trying to teach his students that, just as all blacks are not all the same, neither are all whites, and neither are all police officers.
"You have to look at people as individuals,'' he said.
In all professions, there are some people who are not in it for the right reasons, whether it's teaching or policing, he said. There are some cops who harass people, but there are many others who are working hard and doing the right thing.
For instance, he said, the school resource officers are examples of cops doing good.
"I'm trying to let kids know that police are a community resource,'' he said. "You can talk to the police. At least the three who work in the schools."
Nothing will change, he said, until the police speak out and challenge their fellow officers when they see wrongdoing.
"They can't remain silent,'' he said.
He concedes that it can be difficult to speak out in a job where colleagues rely on one another for their safety and, in some cases, their lives.
"All you can do is be true to yourself,'' he said.
And that's what he's trying to teach his students.