Resisting Good/Bad Teacher/Police Frame and Confronting Systemic Flaws in Education, Law Enforcement

[Expanded and revised at Alternet: A Few Bad Actors? A Former Teacher on Classroom Cops]

The Spring Valley High controversy created by the excessive force used by a police officer on campus represents the intersection of the wider and growing public debates about so-called bad teachers and bad police.

Let me clarify first that I was a public school teacher for 18 years, and I have family members and good friends who are or were police officers. Speaking about the fields of teaching and law enforcement, I would typically be supportive of the individual people who choose these professions that are primarily about serving the public good. Of course, I have dear friends and family members I also consider to be wonderful people, good people who are also outstanding in their professions as teachers and police officers.

I have also heard these good people say and watched them do things that are detrimental to children and adults, things steeped in racism, homophobia, sexism, and classism.

As a teacher (coach and parents, also), I often made mistakes, ones that were detrimental to students and teens. I also came home from teaching on more than one instance with students’ blood splattered on my clothes after breaking up fights. Once, I stood face-to-face with a student of mine who had come on campus with a shotgun planning to shoot a female with whom he had developed an unhealthy fascination.

I am not under the delusion that teachers and police officers must be perfect, and I am well aware that both professions are sometimes (teaching) and often (law enforcement) extremely dangerous for the professionals who are not financially compensated in ways that match their responsibility or the dangers they encounter.

As well, I have almost no tolerance for the political and public demonizing of bad teachers and bad police officers—the finger-pointing at manufactured scapegoats similar to the Reagan era “welfare queen,” which we know was an ugly, racist tactic that misrepresented welfare recipients; the finger-pointing at black-on-black crime that willfully ignores that white-on-white crime is essentially at the same rate (virtually all crime is within race, that is).

Therefore, we are in a difficult position as a society, one that requires all of us to consider the black girl being slammed to the classroom floor against the shooting and killing of Tamir Rice.

To step back from “she should have just done as she was told,” to refrain from blaming the victim.

In fact, we need to refrain from pointing fingers at individuals because many teacher and police officer errors in judgment and tragic behaviors are the result of the larger systemic flaws in our society and the institutions of formal education and criminal justice.

Responding to the incident at Spring Valley High, Camika Royal, a professor of urban education at Loyola University in Maryland, explained:

“Instead of making her cell phone and/or her behavior the focus of his class, he could have told her he would deal with her after class,” Royal wrote in an email to TakePart. “Because of his choice not to let it go, to contact the administrator instead, he kept students from learning, and he disrupted the learning environment.”

In the classroom, wrote Royal, “power struggles with students rarely end well.”

It appears the student put away her phone, but didn’t want to hand it over. This was a situation escalated by the adults in authority. The infraction could easily have been addressed after class.

While far more tragic, Tamir Rice’s life also was extinguished because the officer with authority escalated the situation, over-reacted.

I want to stress that such over-reactions must not be discounted or trivialized as individual behaviors, but must be recognized as the result of normalized expectations, cultural tolerance of how some people, including children, can and should be treated.

As I have examined before, why were public discussions about domestic abuse of women prompted by NFL high-profile incidences absent support for hitting women, but the concurrent debates about hitting children all included pro-spanking arguments?

Because of a lingering normalized acceptance of hitting children that is entirely refuted by research and the medical profession.

Teachers and police officers (including black teachers and police officers) are themselves agents of pervasive systemic biases that continue to disproportionately and negatively impact people and children of color: black children are perceived as being older than their biological ages, black children are punished in school while white children are prescribed medications or provided counseling, black communities are targeted more often by law enforcement, blacks are charged and convicted at higher rates than whites for the same infractions, and blacks and whites use recreational drugs at the same rates but blacks are significantly more likely to be punished for that use.

Just as there is no safe or positive amount of corporal punishment for children—and just as the evidence shows that corporal punishment makes children aggressive and violent adults—the research is powerful that police in the hallways and zero tolerance policies in schools both disproportionately target majority-minority schools and criminalize students.

Yes, we must take care to address individual cases such as the one at Spring Valley High, but if we focus all of our energy on who to blame and if or how we should punish the police officer, we are likely to allow the larger forces to exist that will insure we will continue to face these avoidable situations again and again.

The best day in my teaching career was when I learned to de-escalate tension between me and a student. That day I began creating a classroom in which we all could avoid conflict and disruptions. Most of that change was mine to recognize and to manage—not the teens who were in my care.

The teen at Spring Valley High should never have been slammed to the floor, and Tamir Rice should be alive. Just as teachers and police officers need not be perfect, neither of these young people should have to be perfect to avoid violence and death at the hands of people charged to protect and serve them.

The first step to a solution is admitting the problem: Education and law enforcement in the U.S. are both poisoned by the facts of racism remaining in our culture. Denying that fact is embracing that racism.

Teachers and police officers need not be perfect, but teaching and law enforcement must be better, and we must make that happen immediately.

See Also

Rejecting Police in the Hallways: A Reader

All the White Responses (and the Game Is Rigged)

4 comments

  1. tultican

    For those of us who have worked in middle and high schools, the fact that these students are experts at pushing buttons is a fact of life. I have heard teen-aged students referred to a neurosis detectors. That may be why so many teachers don’t make it past their first year of service; not emotionally equipped to work with groups of students. To me the fundamental problem at Spring Valley High was the use of a police officer to enforce discipline. They are not trained experienced educators and that should not be a police mission. Classroom discipline needs to be the province of professional educators and administrators not cops who have a different roll in society.

  2. Lloyd Lofthouse

    This one CPO ( I assume he was a CPO and not a city police officer) used excessive force. He was wrong and deserved to lose his job. If he ends up in jail or prison, that is up to the courts and I refuse to make that call because the girl is not dead and we have not heard that she was physically injured and ended up in the hospital with broken bones.

    The student evidently had not learned that she should not defy authority in a classroom setting where there are other students in a class where teaching is supposed to take place and the students cooperate and learn. She was also wrong.

    Two wrongs do not make a right.

    Both used bad judgement, but the CPO should have been trained better and not gone to the extreme measures that he used. Instead, when the girl also—I assume she defied the teacher first and that’s why the CPO was called—defied the CPO and refused to leave her desk and the classroom and be escorted to the office to talk to someone there, a counselor, a VP or the principal.

    When she defied the CPO, there should have been procedures in that school that the office be called and an administrator or other CPOs respond to non-violently escort the girl out of class to handle the situation away from the learning environment. In the thirty years I was a teacher, I had kids escorted out of my room for similar defiance and not once did any of the administrators or CPOs do what this CPO did to this one female student.

    Students did refuse to leave their desk or my classroom but they never defied the CPOs or administrators when the arrived to help handle and/or diffuse the situation so we could get back to teaching and learning.

    The school where I taught had a child poverty rate of more than 80% at the time. It’s now higher. When I left in 2005, 8% of the student population was white. Today, that ratio is less than 1%. Maybe the white kids in that community all attend a new corporate Charter school now where they can be legally segregated from minorities. After all, its happening all over the country.

    The gangs are still there and that high school is still ranked low and will one day probably be taken over by the state or those kids will be handed over to a corporate Suspension Academy that will get rid of the defiant kids—who behave like the girl in this incident—ASAP and send them back to another classroom, the streets that the gangs rule. I think that is what has already happened in New Orleans.

    Back to the girl. Here is my concern and few schools are capable of dealing with this sort of trauma.
    The VA is but few public schools and for sure not Eva’s Suspension Academies that ignore these challenges.

    How much mental damage will this cause this girl or has life already damaged her and this incident will just magnify that alleged PTSD that often comes from a traumatic life when you grow up in an environment that programs—as children we are all programmed by the environment we grow up in—-you to defy a teacher when they ask for a mobile phone that should have been left out of sight.

    What were the school’s rules regarding an incident like this? Was the teacher following protocol?

    I think this girl needs some PTSD counseling where she may learn how to manage her reactions to certain situations. I have PTSD that followed me home from Vietnam, and I think her defiance is a PTSD reaction but no one is talking about that. If her alleged PTSD isn’t dealt with NOW, her problems are only going to get worse as her anger grows and the odds will be against her as an adult. With PTSD often comes drugs and alcohol. This girl should receive counseling from someone who knows what they are doing before she becomes a mother herself.

    For instance, our daughter grew up in an entirely different environment then the girl from the slamming incident with the CPO and our daughter’s phone was in her purse but she forgot to turn if off and it rang in the middle of one of her high school classes. The teacher heard it and held out her hand, because that was a school rule and every student in the high school had learned those rules. Why should our daughter be given a break even if she was a straight A student?

    When that phone rang, our daughter didn’t reach for it in her purse until after the teacher asked for it an, red faced and embarrassed, she handed it over to the teacher without a word, and it went to the office where her parents were called. When the phone call came, I picked up and told the school that I would get the phone after school and I wanted our daughter there waiting for me in the office. On the way home, I told our daughter if it happened again, she’d lose the phone for the rest of that school year. This was early in our daughter’s 9th grade year in high school. It never happened again. If anyone reading this comment doubts this incident happened because it started out similar to the one that this post is about, maybe our daughter will be willing to verify it. I’d e surprised if she’s forgotten it. She graduated from Stanford in June 2014, and she has a great job, but she didn’t grow up in an environment that might have been fertile ground for causing PTSD.

  3. Christine Langhoff

    Thank you for this post. It, like so much of what you write, gives a human and humane perspective which clarifies lots of the discussion about this terrible mishandling of what should have been a minor, routine case of appropriate school discipline.

    As I posted on Jose Vilson’s http://thejosevilson.com/were-wrong-reflecting-on-spring-valley-high/ , kids need an environment where they feel known and, yes, loved. A teacher’s love for the kids in their care is not like a parent’s. A parent gets experience for only a few kids, but if you are a sentient person and teach 150 kids a year for 10, 20, 30 or more years, you get a feel for what is normal teen age behavior and what is outside that norm, just due to experience. The best administrator I ever worked with and I shared locker duty in the morning as kids arrived at school. After watching him for a few days, I asked why he faced away from the banks of lockers and instead watched the staircase where the kids came through the doors. His answer: I’m doing triage. I’m looking at their faces and posture to figure out who is going to need help later today.

    So, I want to know if anyone asked what was up with this child. Her head is down on the desk, she’s not interacting with anyone in the room. Maybe she’s defiant in saying she won’t leave, but no one’s in any kind of jeopardy. Is this one of these “no excuses” places? Does that teacher have any training in adolescent psych, child development or is he an “alt certified” five week trained pseudo, dispensing knowledge at the front of the room, unable to engage in the humanity of this girl? Will he be penalized if at the end of the day he’s not on the right paragraph of the scripted curriculum? Do he and the administrator have enough experience to know backing this girl into a corner on this day will not be effective? Did she feel anyone at school knew her and cared about her?

    Ed “reform” is based on fear and punishment, not love. With its emphasis on sweeping away entire teaching staffs in turnaround situations, or chartering new schools, it leaves few experienced teachers and administrators in place, essentially leaving kids with the highest needs in the hands of those least able to identify or handle the challenges. The grown-ups are on tenterhooks, so the kids get no slack. Real teachers understand that their fidelity and focus is to the kids, not to the curriculum guide. Before some start groaning about not enough rigor and grit, consider that you can’t learn when you’re on high alert all day; Maslow, etc.

    You’ve got to love kids before you can teach them, even – especially – when they drive you nuts. Love gives the space to step back and consider what you don’t know about your student. That is not something you can fake or learn from “Teach Like a Champion” or get from snapping, chanting and slanting and assuming the position for learning.

    Finally, love will overcome fear. Niya Kenny, the only person who was able to help, did so out of her recognition of this girl’s humanity. Niya overcame her fear that she would be targeted with her love for another student. In an interview, she said of the victim, “I know this girl don’t got nobody.” At least Niya was somebody.

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