Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Who's at Fault in Columbia?


And this, ladies and gentlemen, is at the root of what happened in Columbia, South Carolina. We have all seen the video by now, a school police officer dragging a student out of a chair and then throwing her across the room. We see twenty seconds of a confrontation and must fill in the rest of the story with our imaginations. The battle lines have already been drawn. Some are lining up in full support of the cop, others are blaming the school teacher and administrators for failing to maintain order. Others are blaming the cop and are ascribing to him racist intentions. Many fewer are blaming the student for her insubordination. So, once again, thanks to a cell phone video, we find ourselves in the midst of another divisive social tinderbox. But all I can think about is my many encounters with teachers and administrators during my time in the public schools. Times have changed.

Two incedents come to mind, one from Elementary school and another from Middle School. I should state up front that I was the sort of student who had a habit of finding trouble. I was generally well liked by my teachers, but caused them mountains of trouble since I had ADHD before anyone even knew what that was. My parents were called in for conferences so often, they were on a first name basis with everyone in the Principle's office. But, the vast majority of my misdeeds were house, and mostly by my teachers. For example...

My fifth grade year, I had a giant of a black man for a teacher...Mr. Northington, tall, impeccably well dressed and movie star handsome. He was the kind of teacher who you could never pull a fast one on. It was as if he had eyes in the back of his head. Anyway, one day, out on the playground during recess, I happened to see one of the school bullies knock one of the smaller kids down on the ground and then start to kick dirt on him. This particular kid was a truly obnoxious bully, a fourth grader, I think. For some reason, this particular episode riled me up to the point that I took it upon myself to confront the bully and before long the two of us were wrestling on the ground and drawing a crowd. Of course, Mr. Northington saw us and came over to break it up, but only after waiting until I was on top of the kid. Then he sat us both down and gave us the "violence is never the answer" speech and sent us both to the Principle's office where I received a days suspension, which was waived in exchange for me staying after school to help the janitor clean out the toilets every afternoon for a week! But the next day, Mr. Northington sat me down and told me that he was proud of me for taking up for the kid who had been bullied. Apparently, he had been watching everything from beginning to end and waited as long as he could before breaking up the fight. It never occurred to me until later that both Mr. Northington and the little kid who got pushed down into the dirt...were both black.

Later, in Middle School, me and a buddy of mine decided that we would play a trick on another bully, this one too big and mean to confront physically. We had gym class together and this dude was constantly harassing all of the skinny, unathletic kids. So my friend and I came up with the brilliant plan of sneaking into the locker room, stealing his pants and flying them up the school flag pole while he was busy playing four square outside. Somehow, our gym teacher instantly knew it was me who was responsible so that afternoon we were called to the Principle's office over the loud speaker. Our principle was a beast, big and loud with a marine's haircut and a highly polished wooden paddle hanging from a nail on the wall behind his desk. He lets my buddy off on a technicality then turns to me..."Dunnevant? How come everyone knew that you were the one behind this? Have you ever wondered about that?" Then he laid out my choices for punishment..." Three licks, or three days?" I always chose the licks, that way, my parents didn't have to find out about it. But, just before administering the blows, he says to me..."For what it's worth Doug, Tommy deserved it, and I liked your style!"

I relate these stories to illustrate the seismic shift that has occurred in the classroom over the last fifty years. When I was in school, the teacher was the law! If I ever came home complaining about one of my teachers, my parents always took the teacher's side. They always assumed that the teacher was right, and if I was having trouble with her or him it was because I was a knucklehead. Consequently, I always was a little bit afraid of my teachers, because I knew that they had the power to make my life miserable. Today, teachers and administrators have to call in police officers to remove defiant students from class, because they are prohibited from laying a hand on a student. Students know this, and behave accordingly. 

Do I approve of the heavy handiness of this particular police officers' tactics? No. But, it never should have come to this. It's past time to restore the authority of teachers and administrators to discipline disruptive students. And while we're at it, how about we ban cell phones from inside the classroom?