As a high school teacher, I am both completely disgusted and utterly confused by the video going around of a school resource officer using brutal force on a high school junior that refuses to give up her phone in math class. The problem is much bigger than insubordination–it boils down to three things:
1. Public Education
First rule in classroom management: treat your students with respect, and they will respect you more for it. They may not understand completely why they want to behave well and succeed in your class, but if you treat them like a person, they will act like a person… usually. Every student is a success until they are told that they are not.
Did anybody think to ask why she did not want to give up her phone? Did anybody ask her how her day was going? In the South, poverty and heartbreaking stories come in all forms. She might be checking on her mom who was in the hospital, she might be texting her brother to see if he could pick her up from school, and heck, she might even have a specialized learning plan and not have understood the request.
Everyday I go into my classroom expecting to learn something new. The kids I teach may look like adults but they are far from it. One minute they are saying something profound and deep, then the next minute they throw a paper ball at their friend across the room and whack another student in the face, creating chaos. Kids are not as they seem.
However, it is clear that I, as the teacher, have no authority in the classroom. I often will threaten detention or referrals but these are simply scare tactics–the real authority goes to administration or the resource officer.
People are scared of teachers because we are with their kids all day. We have been stripped of power, money, right to perform at our best, but are expected to teach kids who KNOW we have not power to discipline them, and we have to make sure these kids pass our standard tests or OUR job lies on the line. So my fate rests with the kid in the back with his headphones in who shouts out a cuss word every five minutes…awesome.
As a teacher in a Title 1 school, the odds are stacked against these kids and teachers more than ever. With about 95% of students on free or reduced lunch, school is not sometimes their priority.
High schoolers are still children, people! Trust me–I look at my freshman and I am SO relieved that they have four more years to go before they go out into the world. All they want is love and clear, obtainable goals and a safe space to go to everyday. For some kids, school IS their safe place and the school personnel are the ones who care for them. Think about all the teachers that stay way past the last bell to listen to a student who is upset or sad about something. Or the lunch ladies who pile extra food onto the kids’ plates everyday because they know that may be the only meal that kid gets that day. Or our resource officer who pokes his head into classes just to see what they are learning, making the students feel safe.
Research has shown that a student’s frontal cortex (the part of the brain that makes decisions) is not fully developed until they are 24 years old. Which means that kids have no idea what they are doing! And yet THEY run our classrooms!
2. Police Brutality
I have seen kids get high in the bathroom and then come to class, only to make a complete fool of themselves and get arrested in front of their friends. I have seen bad fights break out so fast that I don’t even have time to react before other students break it up. I have seen a boy that thinks he is clever, slap a girl on the butt, only for him to be clocked in the face by that girl’s boyfriend, then escalating to the point that a coach had to physically push one kid onto the cafeteria table behind him. Our school resource officer always is calm in these situations, even when a kid was dealing marijuana at school and had to be handcuffed in front of the entire student body.
I am not saying by any means that our resource officer has never had to use the proper protocol for taking control of the situation, but again, there is proper protocol. In public education there is always a hierarchy. It starts with the teacher, and when the student did not follow directions, an administrator or counselor should have been called in to handle the situation in a calm manner. If the student had escalated in behavior, then an administrator could have taken the necessary protocol for getting the student to comply.
Again, this being a student, she might not have understood directions. As a black teenage girl who is already in trouble, “Come with me” coming from a white police officer coined as “Officer Slam” for his brutal reputation, is terrifying and confusing.
Sometimes I will say to a student “Please follow the rules,” only for them to look at me dead in the face and continue doing what they are doing. But when I say “Everyone, sit up in your chair, with your feet flat on the floor, with your headphones and phones put away so that we can begin,” is 100% more effective. Lo and behold, within seconds all of my students are sitting up with their phones away–they just needed specific directions.
3. Racial Tension
I do not know the situation with the girl in South Carolina, but I do know high school students. As a Jewish/Cuban/white teacher as a French teacher in a predominantly black school, I learned so much about racial tensions and differences. The kids have taught me more about America than I could have seen from my own, simple perspective.
Last year, when several cases of police brutality against black people and other minorities surfaced onto the media, I had a student state during class that she “didn’t like the officer and he should just go away. All police officers suck.” I tried to tell her that not ALL of them suck and overgeneralization leads to bad things, but she stuck to her perspectives by saying “Look at us–we are black–we get pulled over for no good reason and the officers be looking at us some kind of way.”
Today I had the joy of taking my senior homeroom class to see a motivational speaker, Dr. Donald Arnette, the first African-American student to earn a Ph.D in any discipline from University of Texas Southwestern. He walked on stage wearing jeans and a t-shirt and opened by asking a student in the audience “what he thinks he does.” The student replied “uh…basketball player?” Everybody laughed and Dr. Arnette said “No, actually, I am an oncologist–I treat people with cancer.” He explained how perception is everything. He talked about police misconduct against him as a student at UT, and how he won a lawsuit against the state for being mistreated.
In south Atlanta, there are big billboards that say “STOP. DON’T RUN. REPORT POLICE
MISCONDUCT.” (They have been suspended as of March 2015 because it sends the wrong message, however there are still some fading in neglected parts of the city.) In what country do we live in that we need to fear the police in our hometown? My ancestors came to America to begin a fuller life as equals among other citizens, why can’t we guarantee that? Why do we need ads against our law enforcement?
I am not saying that the student was in the right, or that the officer was in the right–I am saying that this situation escalated too quickly and there are ways it could have been avoided.
There are much bigger issues here with the girl being dragged out of her desk and thrown a few feet. Clearly America needs to pay more attention at finding better ways to approach public education, police brutality, and racial issues for a 21st century world. How are we supposed to become a better country if we refuse to acknowledge these three issues at a federal level?