(Image: In My Blood It Runs/Maya Newell)

In My Blood It Runs, the new documentary from Gayby Baby director Maya Newell, follows the story of Dujuan, an Arrente and Garrwa boy from around Alice Springs (Mparntwe). Ten years old at the time of filming, he had reached the age of criminal responsibility in all Australian states and territories.

That reality colours Dujuan’s immense struggle to engage with the mainstream education system in town, and his family’s strenuous efforts both to encourage him in that, and keep him strong in his language and culture. But this film is not just a story about Dujuan. It’s a window into the failings of the mainstream education system — failings that are funnelling Indigenous kids into the hands of the criminal justice system.

For Dujuan and his family, there’s little faith that school will present him with much opportunity. But it’s much better than the alternative: prison. Dujuan is acutely aware that not going to school seems to lead to getting “cruelled” in Don Dale (still open and operating after the Four Corners’ expose in 2017, and the subsequent royal commission).

His experiences at school will shock many non-Indigenous viewers, but be painfully familiar to Indigenous audiences. It shows, plainly, the casual harm inflicted by a teacher who calls the Dreamtime “a story”, and another who declares Captain Cook “discovered” Australia. It shows the way that struggling students become “problem” students sent to the principal’s office, and eventually get excluded from school.

Sign up for a FREE 21-day trial and get Crikey straight to your inbox

By submitting this form you are agreeing to Crikey's Terms and Conditions.

While we get to know Dujuan as a thoughtful and insightful child with a keen appreciation for the history of his country, we see that inside the school gates he is cast as a deficient subject — a problem the system has no way of grappling with. Seemingly some years behind his fellow students in English reading and writing, and now acting out, Dujuan’s solution to the E’s on his report card is to act out more aggressively against the system that seems intent on shaming him.

It could be easy to point to individual teachers but the film transcends above that, connecting the dots is between racism, the schooling system and the prison system. It demonstrates how a school system transplanted from urban, non-Indigenous settings, running an English-only, cookie-cutter curriculum is inherently biased against the Indigenous students it supposedly wants to empower.

For students who can’t find their way through, the consequences can be ruinous.

In My Blood It Runs arrives at a time of impasse in Indigenous education policy, when the policy imagination is moored in disciplinary logic. An obsession with punishing school non-attendance has been a feature of Indigenous policy since the 2000s. Welfare trials in Cape York and some Northern Territory locations linked school attendance to welfare payments. While this experiment in punishment largely failed, the logic remains. Speaking to 2GB in 2018, Tony Abbott, then-special envoy on Indigenous affairs, argued that Indigenous students needed more “structure, discipline and repetition”.

In the US, researchers coined the term “school-to-prison pipeline” (earlier, “schoolhouse to jailhouse”) as a metaphor for the harsh disciplinary approaches of schools that mirrored the “zero tolerance” policies of law enforcement, the growth of police in schools, and the criminalisation of school discipline. The resulting high rates of expulsion are linked to contact with the criminal justice system and, ultimately, incarceration.

In 2014, the US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights found that black students were expelled at a rate three times that of white students. In 2015, a 25% rise in school expulsions in Victoria — with a full 11,282 students suspended and 172 expelled — prompted an Ombudsman’s inquiry and an effort to reverse these rates, recognising that most prisoners in Victoria had not completed school.

School expulsion data in Australia is not widely available, and no data from the Northern Territory is public. But there are signs that a similar pipeline effect exists. We know that the Territory is experimenting with placing police in schools; targeting students at risk of disengaging from education, as they put it. It is easy to see where this criminalisation of young Indigenous people is leading. Already, every child in Northern Territory prisons is Indigenous.

We should heed the lessons of the US. Some US schools are now actively reducing rates of expulsion and applying the concepts of restorative justice in schools. Yet here in Australia, a proper discussion on the issue is only just beginning.

For Dujuan and his family, there are solutions — and they are able to find them, despite myriad of obstacles created by poverty, geography and racism. Dujuan explains his vision, which seems much better informed than most contemporary policy approaches:

I want my school to be run by Aboriginal people. I think we should stop cruelling 10-year-old boys in jail. I want my future out on land with family and strong in culture and language.

There is a long history of Indigenous teachers and communities seeking more control over their education systems, to make them more relevant to the specific needs and desires of Indigenous students. The former principal of Yirrkala school in North East Arnhem Land, M Yunupingu (famous as the lead singer of Yothu Yindi), developed, along with his Yolngu colleagues, the concept of “double power”: using literacy in English to understand and seek justice in the non-Indigenous world, and literacy in an Indigenous language to assist in the maintenance of culture and Indigenous ways of being.

Dujuan’s grandmother argues that we need this kind of “two ways education”: one that values local language and culture, and places Indigenous teachers in positions of power once again. In My Blood It Runs shows that there is a way out of the impasse. Will Australia listen?

Amy Thomas is a lecturer and PhD candidate at the University of Technology Sydney. Her research concerns education, language, social movements, and Australian history.

In My Blood It Runs will be screening at film festivals throughout 2019, and in cinemas from February 2020.