Worth a Thousand Words

So I have spent quite a deal of time over the past couple of days reading the coverage of the incident in Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina where a SRO tossed a dissenting student out of her desk and then across the room in order to arrest her.

I have watched the video.  I have read the comments.

I think that at this point in my digesting the scenario I find the comments more horrifying than the video.  While the video has its elements of horror for me (and how) it is the array of comments on the coverage that elicit my fear the most.  There are so many people who were thrilled that this is how a student was treated.  I cannot believe the number of people who post on boards saying that a student, resisting handing over a cell phone should be thrown across a room, and the mildest epithet applied to the young woman in that video in many of these comments is that she’s a “brat”.

I have problems with this on many levels, but I want to approach those levels separately because they handle different parts of the situation from differing perspectives.

As a Parent:

I want to be called before they call the police on my child for a cell phone issue— because that is what this was, a cell phone issue.

I want to feel that I can send my child to school without there being a reasonable chance that they might be physically assaulted by someone trained in combative arts.  I don’t feel reassured about that looking at this video.  I am a martial artist and we are taught control.  We are taught to exercise force when and only as necessary, but also a great deal of respect for the training itself and for the body of our opponent.  We are taught discipline and restraint— self-control.  That video shows a disregard for that student’s person greater than her disregard for the authority telling her to hand over the cell phone.

Teenagers are notorious for their poor decision making skills, and one of the reasons is that they haven’t been making higher order decisions all that long.  The pre-frontal cortex only forms in humans fully (at the earliest) around age 14.  It can take until the mid 20’s for everything to sync up properly. That’s not making excuses for teens, that’s just the way things are biologically.  I have no control over it and, my gracious, wouldn’t life be easier if it weren’t that way, but it is…  I have no idea how old the student is, but she has only been making decisions like an adult for a few years which means that her mental paths will still at times re-route to more childish processes like refusing to hand over a cell phone, and that’s especially true in times of stress.  Expecting perfect maturity and cooperation from teenagers at all times is foolishness from adults: it just won’t happen.  Punishing that recalcitrance with arrest and physical abuse is criminal in and of itself.  From amendment 4 of the constitution of the USA:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Principally, what was violated there was the minor’s right to be secure in her person.  The officer’s handling of the situation violated her rights as a citizen of the country.

If you’re going to arrest teenagers for being stupid (but not necessarily breaking the law because the last time I looked there were no laws on the books about refusing to hand over cell phones to people who demand it) then I suggest we start building more jails because they’ll be full in very short order.  How can you hope to teach respect, lawfulness and peace from a standpoint of violence and disregard for the dignity of other humans?

As a Teacher:

I do not know the teacher or the students in that room personally, but I can tell you that that class is in trouble because the trust between the teacher and the students has to be rebuilt from the ground up now.  A classroom is a community.  Each class is unique.  Each time you gather together as teacher and students that is a really special relationship and it’s also necessarily a complicated relationship.  A teacher is a person of authority, but not a family member, and yet teachers and coaches can develop parent-like relationships with their students because the teachers often grow to love their students and vice-versa.  Generally, as a student I had good relationships with my teachers, and as I teacher I worked very hard for good relationships with my students.  Owing to the complicated nature of my students’ lives, that wasn’t always possible.  There were students who would promise you the moon (finishing work, turning their act around etc.) and then never deliver.  There were students who would quietly and diligently do their work and never utter a word out of turn.  There were students who were stars and liked shining.  There were students who had no good relationships with any other human in the building, and certainly no good relationship with themselves.  These were the students whom the world had failed, and for whom worked the hardest because it is never a child’s fault that their life is a shambles, and (in my way of thinking) I can only hold them accountable for their behavior to a point in those cases.   These students would often resist the hardest because fighting a teacher seemed like the only place where they could stage a fight in their lives and win.  These students taught me the truth of something I had once read, but not understood until then and it made me a better teacher and parent.  “If an adult and a child are in a power-struggle there is only one person keeping the power-struggle alive, and it’s the adult.”  You can always choose to give up some of your so-called “power” in a situation with a student, turn your back on the student and calm down, and very often you will find that the recalcitrant teen will quietly accede to your request of them once there’s no more struggle to be had.

The question of whether or not that undermines one’s authority is not so straight-forward.  My first two years as a teacher I learned that trying to win battles with teenagers often only resulted in escalations like what happened in that video.  No police were ever called to my classroom in my first few years of teaching, but there were times when I felt powerless because my teenage students had no regard for my supposed “authority”.  The commenters online say that this kid was a “brat”.  I want to know what teenager (other than Jesus) was never a brat and never made a bad decision?  What would they have called the white boy from the middle class who called me a cunt in front of my class my first year as his middle school music teacher?  Was he also a brat?  Would he have deserved to have been thrown across the room?  Oh I wrote him up for it, and there were the phone calls home etc, but there was also a conversation between us.  He and I talked about it because really it’s a strange thing to do, to call your teacher that.  There was no good reason, I had not ever openly antagonized him and as he explained things to me I began to understand that he was just being stupid like teens sometimes are, like all people sometimes are, just as this girl was, and that leads me to the third point.

My principal at that same school once said in my hearing, “I’m really loathe to bring in police officers to deal with our students because the police work in a different world, and I want to keep my students in here, in their desks where I can protect them better from that world as long as possible.”  I realize now that Kim understood something essential about how the world works and that many of our students had already probably had brushes with that world because their neighbors or I don’t even know who else thought that the appropriate way to deal with teenage stupidity was to call the police rather than try to build a relationship with a “brat.”  Schools are not prisons, they are supposed to be learning communities, and I saw enough troubles in there, enough fights, and enough frights to be able to say that there were times when I thought “Can I have some law and order around here, please?!”  But the longer I taught the more I learned that it was always easier in the long run if I was the one who handled things.  And that’s the magic of being the adult in the situation.  I could see the long run even if the student couldn’t.  If a student wanted to fight me that was fine because I was old enough to take it (I don’t mean physically, I mean verbally).  They could rage at me and frequently come back later and apologize without my having to say anything about it.  My classroom was a place of three things: music, how to learn, and how to be a good human.  I can’t teach those things if the police are there to arrest my charges, if one of my students has been man-handled in my class because of a cell phone, and I can’t teach those things if the students are in court proceedings.  Kim was right.  We are teachers, not jailers, and we don’t arrest students for their bad behavior!  Our job was to accept them for the fledgling humans they are and to try to take them as far as they’d let us towards the next part of their journey.  YES, some students let you take them much farther, never fight you, and love everything about you, but those are the students who get the most out of their education anyways.  This girl needed someone to just let the cell phone go so that she could have the chance to stop fighting, so that she could have the chance to go back to learning.  Once the teacher let go of the responsibility of handling it everything escalated.  It did not have to be that way.  Teachers and students are supposed to have the messy conversations about growing up and being human and that means that sometimes the kids are going to treat you like garbage, disrespect you and turn things into power struggles, but that doesn’t mean that you get to have them arrested.  It means you have to care because that’s why you took the job.  You didn’t take the job because you thought it would be a living nightmare (some days just are, welcome to the working, adult world), you didn’t take the job because it would be thankless and you knew it (though most educators know it’s not roses and thank-yous every day), and you didn’t take it to be disrespected at every turn, but you did take that job because you cared!

I do not want anyone’s child to face this.  People in the Netherlands sometimes ask me why I don’t want to move back to the US, and the reasons behind what happened in this video are part of that (social, racial, political you name it).  This just simply would not, could not happen here.   That video is horrifying because that was someone’s child being thrown out of her desk for not handing over a cell phone. I can’t watch this without seeing someone’s child being thrown across the room after being choked first (which is very dangerous because she’s a teen and that could have killed her since a teen’s larynx is still more loosely attached in the throat than an adult’s.)  How did the United States with things like “In God We Trust” printed on its money for pity’s sake come to the point where we have normalized violent responses to child disobedience so much that commenters will feel that the response is rational, appropriate, and deserved?

How can we as a nation of people, a nation of officers, educators, students etc. move forward from shootings, arrests, too little money, too little time and too damn much to do?

Well, I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that THIS isn’t how!


~ by Rebecca Erickson on October 29, 2015.

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