You’re not asking the right questions.
I have worked in some very violent, dangerous and/or stressful school situations. Most people just don’t know how tough it can be. Therefore I was saddened at the naive, hysterical reactions of the public, the news media and the commander of the officer in the Spring Valley High video. Why do I call the outpouring of anger and outrage at the video hysterical? It is hysterical because there was a rush to judgement without enough of the right questions being asked or answered. The following will be an examination of what I believe to be the most important and relevant questions as well as an examination of possible alternative actions and outcomes.
In each of the following segments I want you to ask yourself, ‘What are my cherished beliefs? What do I know about child rearing, discipline and teaching? Before I judge the Resource Officer at Spring Valley High, what would I have done differently?’
These beginning questions are important because too many times, whether talking about school discipline or law enforcement, people have the tendency to say, “You should not have done that.” But they can’t say or can’t demonstrate what should have or could have been done that would have been more effective or less stressful. I will.
What was the protocol?
The important questions here are, ‘What are the school policies and protocols regarding issues of classroom behavior and discipline? [Note: By discipline I mean both the concept of discipline as an act of instruction AND discipline for the purpose of controlling. See Thomas Gordon, Ph.D.] Do all the parties know the rules and protocols? How detailed are the protocols? Do you have a range of strategies or contingencies for the child who refuses to comply? Who at the school has authority to physically restrain a child?’
For example: A child breaks a school or classroom rule. The teacher reviews the rules, hopefully with a reason for why the rule is in place (discipline as instruction), and then the teacher reviews the established consequences (what happens next if…) for breaking the rule (review of protocol and discipline for control). If the child refuses to comply then the teacher orders the child to go to the office or dean of students (some schools would, under certain conditions, have the teacher contact security at this point to escort the child). If the child refuses to leave, then the teacher contacts security and the office. At this point it gets tricky. What is the policy for the child who won’t leave? I have had that problem (see Fear). Who has authority to physically control, compel or restrain the child and under what orders or conditions?
If you think there are no conditions under which an adult could legally touch a child then read no further. But if you are prepared to examine the challenges that arise in a serious discussion of what could have been done better at Spring Valley High, then read on. I’ll make some solid suggestions at the end.
I’ll say this more than once, ‘If we let one kid get away with inappropriate behavior, how do we stop the rest of them? How do we justify enforcing the rules on those who are compliant while ignoring those who flaunt the rules simply because those students might become passive aggressively difficult or violent?’
It was only a phone.
Some have suggested that the officer’s reaction was excessive because the student’s crime or infraction was simply ‘using a cell phone in class’. At first blush using a phone in class doesn’t seem all that serious, but it is. Why? Well, I ask you, ‘Have you ever tried to teach somebody something while they were using a cell phone?’ I have, and it’s a waste of time. Cell phones are distracting. Many studies have shown that driving while using a cell phone is as dangerously distracting as driving while drunk. You wouldn’t let me allow a drunk to sleep in class would you?
Cell phone use at school isn’t always necessary or innocent. I’ve seen phones used to cyber bully, video record beatings, cheat on tests, set up after (or during) school fights, robberies and/or drug buys. If your child was being cyber bullied or beat up and cell phones were used to set it up would you still see phones as harmless?
The important questions here are, ‘What was the school policy regarding cell phones? How detailed is that school policy if the child won’t surrender the phone or leave class? Does the child know the policy? If we let one kid get away with inappropriately using their phone how do we stop the rest of them? How do we justify enforcing the rules on those who are compliant while ignoring those who flaunt the rules simply because those students might become passive aggressively difficult or violent?’
I had a girl in my class who wouldn’t give up her cell phone (which she was on constantly) because it was her link to her possessive, abusive boyfriend. She wouldn’t even hang up when the Principal told her she had to hang up or get thrown out of school. She preferred expulsion to following the school rules and refused to hang up her phone.
Please be aware that the time it takes for me to tell a student to put the phone away, then remind them of or argue about the rules, then call the Principal, and then call the Resource Officer (or School Police or Security) is educational time stolen from some 20, 30 or more students. When do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one or the few? People worried about the state of education in America should bear in mind that time spent on classroom management and discipline is time not spent on teaching or learning. So the student’s real crime here is not cell phone use, it’s the theft of learning time from others. And that is very serious.
“He jests at scars that never felt a wound.”
Some of the first questions I’d ask of any news commentator are, “Have you ever had to compel someone to do something when they adamantly refused? Have you ever had to physically compel someone to do something? Have you ever broken up a girl fight or any other fight for that matter? How many girl fights have you broken up?” This is very important because those of us who have witnessed or tried to intervene in a girl fight know how difficult it is to get a girl (or anyone) to comply if they don’t want to. This is also important because it reveals your hidden assumptions about girls and fighting and school reactions to violence.
For five years, while earning my Masters of Education degree, I worked as a substitute teacher at over 35 different middle, junior and senior high schools in South Central Los Angeles. For the next 20 years I worked at a Community Day School. (CDS schools get the most ‘at risk’ and the most troubled students in the district.) I’ve seen the toughest around and I have broken up many fights. More than a few of those fights were girl fights. Teen aged girls can be very tough. According to union guidelines we teachers are not supposed to get physically involved in fights or student discipline. We are supposed to call for school security. But as I’ve said before, “What am I supposed to do? Do I just stand by while some girl gets the crap beat out of her? Do I let kids break the rules because those kids might get difficult? How do I stop them?”
But asking the teacher or principal to get involved physically is dangerous. I got a long term substitute math assignment at an affluent middle-class (i.e., not in the hood), junior high because the regular (female) teacher tried to break up a girl fight and they turned on her and put her in the hospital. Later, due to an attempt at progressive discipline which allowed the fighters to stay in school, one of them got into another fight and she put the female principal in the hospital!
Size of the combatants is deceptive.
One comment I saw on the news was regarding the difference in size between the girl (smaller) who refused to leave the class and the Resource Officer (larger) who was asked to removed her. That is a specious argument. I have to again ask, “Have you ever tried to physically control someone without hurting them when they did not want to comply?” Sure, if the officer wanted to knock her out he probably could have easily done it. But to physically control someone without hurting them is very difficult. I’ve had to do it several times. Where does the male officer (or teacher) put his hands to hold on to a female student without touching some body part that would get him accused of sexual misconduct and/or without ripping her clothes or causing serious bruising?
Size is deceptive. In What Happened to David Mary talks about how many girls she encountered who were violent and small. She called them ‘peewee criminals’. Actually most of the violent females I encountered were small yet VERY tough. One girl asked me what jobs she could apply for where she’d get to shoot people; another girl who was a mother already at 17 got locked up for going on to another campus and beating and robbing a student there; another girl who was barely 5 feet tall went after the campus bully who was a guy of over 6 feet and two hundred pounds and she would have beat him bloody if I hadn’t stopped her!
She was quiet.
This is another specious argument. The young girl at Spring Valley High was politely asked to leave but she was passive aggressively defiant of school authority. Quietness is not always a sign of good behavior nor is it a guarantee of good behavior. The school bully I spoke of before was very quiet in my class. I only found out about his crimes after he posted a video on YouTube of him beating up another student (he was later arrested and charged with assault).
“I’ve never seen anything like it.”
One news cast interviewed a student and she said, “I’ve never seen anything like it.” That’s not good journalism because incidents of school violence are like hurricanes, you can go years without ever experiencing them or they can come your way in rapid succession. They are not unique.
Solutions: You’re the expert! You should have handled it differently. How?
To restrain or not to restrain, that is the question. I have seen students handcuffed in my classroom. If there is any question of an arrest being made there should always be at least two officers present (if possible), and in the case of Spring Valley High one of them should have been female.
Some pundits have said, “Rather than bring law enforcement in they should have let the school handle it.” But the school did try to handle it and was unsuccessful. Here is where we could use more information such as, ‘What exactly did the teacher say to the student about the infraction of the rules and the possible consequences? What did the principal say to the student? What did the principal say to the Resource Officer?’
Some pundits have said, “They should have put the class in the hall.” But trust me people, that could create more behavior problems than it might solve. I would want two adults in the room with the girl so she couldn’t say she was abused while out of sight of her classmates. So then there would have been only one adult trying to guard, manage, control or maybe even trying to TEACH 20 or 30 students in the hall? Not a good idea. When do the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one?
What I would have done at Spring Valley High.
Whether I was the teacher, the principal or the Resource Officer, I’d have used a combination of ‘Godfather Speech’ and ‘Two Choices Technique’. Using a tone more in sorrow than in anger (‘What have I done to deserve this disrespect?’) I’d say, “You know the rules don’t you? Then we have a problem here because if you don’t follow the rules, it takes time away from learning. So you have two choices, the easy way or the hard way. Either you go to the office and we clear this up with as little fuss as possible. Or you wait here while we call your mother (father, foster parent, guardian, or parole officer) to come and get you and take you to your new school. So what’s it going to be? The hard way, where you go to a new school or the easy way, where we go to the office and we work this out?”