[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.
“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.