Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Little Schoolin'

The viral video du jour, actually three of them, show a white police officer grabbing a female African American high school student while she was sitting at her desk in class, then flipping the girl and the desk over and dragging both of them out of the classroom. Not surprisingly, these videos shot by fellow students in a South Carolina school on their cell phones has drawn universal outrage, and the reactions as we have come to expect from the right and the left of this country, are entirely predictable.

To one side, this is an obvious case of a racist cop egregiously overstepping his authority. To the other side, it's a case of a teenager disrespectful of education and authority, selfishly disrupting a class thereby denying her classmates the opportunity to learn.

These reactions came well before any context surrounding the confrontation were brought to light. After the actual facts were brought out into the open well... nobody changed their mind.

The facts, some of them at least, are these:
  • During class, the student was either texting of having a conversation (eye-witness reports vary) on her cell phone and the teacher demanded she stop. She refused. (Score one against the student).
  • After a standoff, the teacher requested help from a school administrator. The student refused to cooperate again. At that point the cop, a "resource officer" who was assigned to the school was called to the room. The officer asked the student several times to get up and leave the classroom. Again she refused. (Score another against the student)
  • After unsuccessfully convincing the student to leave her seat and the classroom, the cop grabbed the girl who continued to resist. This resulted in the ugly scene in the videos described above. (Score one against the cop and the student).
  • It was later revealed that the student's mother recently died and that the young woman was in foster care. (Score one for the young woman).
  • It was also revealed that the same officer has charges pending relating to incidents of a similar nature involving students of color. (Score one against the cop).
  • The officer's boss, the county sheriff, before firing him, released a statement that his employee was no racist as he is currently dating a black woman. (No idea how to score that one). 
  • Defending his firing of the cop, the sheriff also said that the officer's actions were "not typical of the job I expect (him) to do." (Score yet another against the officer).
Heard consistently throughout the coverage of this incident is the opinion that nothing the student did, at least anything apparent from the videos, justifies the officer's actions. Perhaps this is true. However, two critical questions that desperately need to be addressed, especially by police and school officials are these: why are policemen permanently assigned to schools in the first place, and secondly, what exact actions ARE typical of the job(s) that officers are expected to do when someone flat out refuses to comply with an essential and perfectly reasonable request?

I think it's safe to assume that the teacher's and administrator's reason for calling in a policeman was to remove a disruptive student from the classroom so the class could continue. It's highly unlikely they expected the officer to council the student, offer her words of encouragement, or invite her to tea. They could have done that themselves, perhaps they should have. When all else fails, short of building trap doors or ejector seats in classrooms (hmmm, maybe not such a bad idea), the only way to remove a student who simply refuses to leave, is by using the threat of force, and when that fails, use force itself. That's why the policeman was called. If the student responds in kind with force, as was the case with this particular child, things can get pretty ugly, which they did.

It has been stated over and over again that the officer acted irresponsibly and perhaps even criminally in roughing up the student, but no one, not even the sheriff could offer any clues as to how the officer could have acted responsibly while still doing what was asked of him.

A policeman's responsibility beyond dealing with bad guys and wayward students is to use proper judgement and restraint, and to act according to the rule of law while carrying out those responsibilities. Like other people who are paid to do unpleasant work, we expect the police to do a job that most of us are unwilling and/or afraid to do. Clearly the school administrator and the teacher felt the need to remove this student from the classroom, yet they didn't want to perform the messy, perhaps job-threatening work themselves. Perhaps they should have tried harder before taking the draconian step of calling in the police officer.

I asked my resident authority on such matters, my mother, (a long time teacher, administrator and principal of a large inner-city elementary school) what she would have done. Without missing a beat she said that if a student was stubborn about leaving the class and making a scene, she would have had all the other students leave for the library and left the student alone in the classroom to sit and think about her actions without the benefit of an audience. Had the situation been handled in that way there would have been no need to call in the federales in the first place, no violence, no viral videos, and of course, no blog post.

In my book, the school officials are as responsible for what happened that day as anybody else. Calling in a police officer to handle a situation they probably could and should have handled themselves was only asking for trouble. Like I said, the officer was doing the job that was asked of him. Violent and ugly as those videos are, I am not in a position to judge if the officer acted inappropriately, and frankly with the unreliable information we have, I don't think most of us are.

As for the student, what if any responsibilities does she have? First of all I think it's reasonable to expect all students to act in the spirit of the class, if not by directly participating, then at the very least showing respect by refraining from disrupting the teacher and fellow students. Every student knows full well that using a cell phone in class is unacceptable. Except in an emergency, where the student should have excused herself from the class, there is absolutely no excuse for violating this obvious breach of common sense and respect for her teacher and her peers. It was the student's choice to violate both the spirit and the rules of the class by using her phone, refusing to stop when asked, and resisting the officer when he demanded she leave. Whether his actions were appropriate or not, the student brought upon the those actions entirely by herself.

This week, a friend of mine taught me a new word he encountered in his work in the field of social justice. That word is "de-opportuniteed", an adjective made up by social workers as a substitute for the term "at risk", used to describe children who have a good chance of falling between the cracks in society. The old term was neutral in that it didn't claim to place judgement on a child's circumstances, it merely flagged a problem. The new term by contrast explicitly states that the children in question are in their precarious position because something has been done TO them, thereby eliminating any trace of responsibility from the child.

Clearly we need to have compassion and empathy for children who lack the love, guidance, care and protection of a loving family. But there are two things that must be considered. First, not all "at risk" children are neglected by their families, and second, not all children with difficult backgrounds are at risk. At some point, all children regardless of their background must be taught to be responsible for themselves.

I see a great deal of harm in the attitude that this whole mess is entirely the responsibility of the officer and none of it belongs to the student. To me, that sends a very clear message to students all over the country that it is their right to behave exactly as they please in school, to ignore the demands of teachers, school officials and other authority figures, and that their education is entirely the responsibility of the school, and none of it their own.

And we wonder why we are falling behind the rest of the world in terms of education.

Finally, one last question has been raised over and over again in this discussion: "How would you react if that was your child?" To that let me state without any reservation that two of the most cherished people in my life are my son and daughter and if any harm came to them I would be devastated. While I refuse to lay a hand on either of my children in anger, I believe that in order to become engaged, successful individuals as well as good people, all children must be challenged to some extent in every aspect of their lives. At this point in their young lives, being a student is my children's job and they have the responsibility to do the best they can at that job. I think both of them understand that and both of them work very hard at school, even if they'd rather be doing something else.

To answer the question how would I feel if my kids were treated that way by a police officer: if one of my children at that age showed as little respect for their teacher, their education, their classmates and the police officer as the student in South Carolina did, then with much sorrow and regret I would have to say, yes, he or she would have had it coming.

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