A Few Bad Actors? A Former Teacher on Classroom Cops

The Spring Valley High (Columbia, SC) controversy, spurred by a police officer using excessive force on campus, sits at the intersection of the growing public debates around education and law enforcement. Where do we place the blame for the failings of these institutions? On a few bad actors, or on something well beyond the actions of individuals alone?

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 individuals who choose these professions that are primarily about serving the public good. I have dear friends and family members I also consider to be wonderful people, good people who are 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 (and coach and parent), I often made mistakes that were harmful to students and teens. I 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 who came on campus with a shotgun, planning to shoot a girl with whom he had developed an unhealthy fascination.

I do not harbor the illusion that teachers and police officers must be perfect, and I am well aware that both professions are sometimes extremely dangerous for the professionals who populate them — individuals who are rarely financially compensated in ways that match their responsibilities or the dangers they encounter. I have almost no tolerance for the political and public demonizing of teachers and police officers, particularly because it almost always obscures the larger societal issues that must be addressed if we hope to make events like those in South Carolina last week disappear.

And yet, there are any number of ways things might have turned out differently, as much for the girl in that classroom as for Tamir Rice, and the growing list of young black people who continue to be assaulted or killed by police officers.

First, we must acknowledge that many errors in judgment and tragic behaviors committed by teachers and police officers are the result of the larger systemic flaws in our society, particularly racism. We are in a difficult position in the U.S., one that requires all of us to consider the black girl being slammed to the classroom floor not in a race-neutral vacuum of simply, "who did what first," but against a pattern of racialized violence between authorities and black youth, a pattern that robs black children not just of opportunity but also of their humanity.

To wit: It is worth pausing to recognize that in the Spring Valley incident, all of the adults present—the teacher, the administrator and the officer on hand —felt entirely justified in enforcing their authority without any regard for the student’s well-being.

As Camika Royal, a professor of urban education at Loyola University in Maryland, explained in an email to TakePart, "Instead of making her cell phone and/or her behavior the focus of his class, [the teacher] could have told her he would deal with her after class. 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, Royal wrote, “power struggles with students rarely end well.”

It appears the student put away her phone, but didn’t want to hand it over, and the situation was escalated by the adults in authority. The infraction could easily have been addressed after class. But the well-being of the student was less important to these adults than the desire to exercise their authority. Tamir Rice’s life also was extinguished because the officer with authority escalated the situation and overreacted, with far more tragic consequences.

Such overreactions must not be discounted or trivialized simply as individual behaviors. They must be recognized, instead, as the direct result of normalized expectations -- a cultural tolerance of how some children can and should be treated.

It’s a point I have examined before, specifically around the public discussions of physical abuse prompted by high-profile incidences in the NFLWhy is it that we (thankfully) saw more or less zero support for the practice of hitting women in those cases, while concurrent debates about hitting children all featured pro-spanking arguments? Because of a lingering, normalized acceptance of the practice of hitting children — a practice 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 appropriate for children, and just as the evidence shows that such punishment turns children into aggressive and violent adults, the research is similarly powerful that police in the hallways and zero-tolerance policies in schools both disproportionately target majority-minority schools and criminalize students. What are we doing to address that?

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 whether or how we should punish the police officer in question, we are likely to allow the larger forces to persists that ensure 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 the tension between me and my students. 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, young people should not 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 racism and violence of our culture. Denying that fact simply allows that deadly pair to propagate, and the results are clear enough for all of us to see.

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