Thursday, October 29, 2015

Cops in School: A Case Study in Social Responsibility

Here's a story:

A teenage girl, recently orphaned and now in foster care, starts acting up in class. She refuses to follow the teacher's instructions and is disrupting the classroom environment--not because she is a spoiled brat, but because her life has gone to $#!T. And unless you're an unusually mature person (not common among teens), one thing you find yourself doing when your life goes to $#!T is that you start trying to rub some of the $#!T off on those around you, as if that will help. It doesn't, of course.

Like love, $#!T is one of those things that when you give it away, you don't reduce your own supply. You just make more of it in the world. 

But troubled teens don't usually see this, and so they handle their troubles by making trouble for those around them. And here it is, happening in the classroom. It's gotten so bad that the teacher can't teach. So the teacher calls in an administrator, who lectures and shouts at the girl to no effect. And so they call in a Sheriff's deputy assigned to the school as its resource officer.

When the officer arrives, he orders the troubled girl to get up and leave the classroom with him. She refuses. He lays hands on her and she strikes out. Not to much effect--she poses no physical threat-- but it is an expression of disdain towards his authority. He now decides to make her get out of the chair and arrest her.

Of course, this story is based on recent events at a South Carolina high school. The details may not be perfect, but I think they capture the gist of what happened. What comes next has been witnessed by many, thanks to students who captured it on video: a violent flurry of coercive force applied by a large adult man onto a much smaller teenage girl, one who may have been stubbornly refusing to follow instructions but was posing no physical threat to anyone.

How could such a thing happen? After viewing the shocking video footage, it's easy to blame the cop. Those who don't want to blame the cop instead blame the girl. And I'm not saying we shouldn't be concerned about laying individual responsibility where it appropriately lies. But I'm always suspicious of public conversations that focus too narrowly on which individual to blame without paying attention to the broader social realities that made the situation possible.

And there are broader social realities in play here. Let me approach them this way: A student is breaking school rules--not the law, but school rules. She is being disruptive--not posing a threat to the safety of other students, but disturbing the learning environment.

By all indicators, this isn't a criminal committing crimes. This is a school discipline problem.

But then a police officer is brought in to solve it. And police are trained to solve criminal problems. It is their job to enforce the law for the sake of preserving the rule of law and the public safety. Enforcement implies the judicious use of force--that is, making people do what they refuse to do willingly. That's part of what the police do: they use force and the threat of force to encourage obedience to the law and apprehend law-breakers. And when they decide to make an arrest, they have the legal right to use force to ensure compliance.

The use of police force may make sense when what is at stake is public safety and preservation of the rule of law. But school discipline? 

Surely there are or should be institutional strategies for addressing adherence to school rules and teacher authority, strategies that don't end up changing a school discipline issue into a criminal one by getting the police involved.

Let me clarify something: The schools my children attend have resource officers--police officers assigned to watch out for the welfare of the children at those schools and to address criminal activities that might affect that welfare. I'm glad they're there.

I think school resource officers are a great idea. But their job shouldn't be to enforce discipline in the classroom and ensure that students obey school rules.

Their job is, in part, to protect students from criminal threats (which may come from outside the school or from within it) and to enforce relevant laws for the sake of student safety and welfare. More importantly, their presence in schools can serve to build relationships between the community and the police in ways that encourage mutual trust and respect. They can help educate students through special programs related to their training and expertise--such as drug awareness programs.

But for the sort of day-to-day discipline that is linked to the school's role of educating and nurturing young people, something quite different is called for than what the police are trained to do. School discipline is part of its educational mission, not just something they do to make education possible. The way that schools discipline should therefore express this mission. Discipline should be (in part, at least) about giving students the resources to better manage their own behavior. It should give them insight into why such self-discipline matters. It may call for counselors trained to recognize when and how misbehavior is related to horrible things happening to kids, horrible $#!T the kids don't know how to handle.

Police may care about nurturing our young people, but this job of teaching personal responsibility and discipline isn't their job. Hence, putting them into the position of being classroom disciplinarians is a recipe for trouble. It's not fair to the officers or to the kids. Kids who are muddling through the messy business of growing up need a different sort of discipline to help them do it than what law enforcement provides.

Unfortunately, South Carolina has blurred these crucial distinctions by passing a law that criminalizes "disturbing schools." According to a CNN report,
South Carolina has a law that muddles the role of school resource officers, the sheriff said. 
"Unfortunately, our Legislature passed a law that's called 'disturbing schools,' " he said. 
"If a student disturbs school -- and that's a wide range of activities, 'disturbing schools' -- they can be arrested. Our goal has always been to see what we can do without arresting the kids. We don't need to arrest these students. We need to keep them in schools."
But the problem goes deeper than a single law. School is a kind of training ground for functioning in the adult world. It serves to teach children how to succeed in that world, and it doesn't do so just in the classroom but in numerous other ways.

If it takes a village to raise a child, then in our modern world it is the school that functions as that village. 

In other words, the school can and should function as a kind of extended family--especially for those who don't have significant family support at home, those who suffer from negligent parenting or have lost their parents. While this means expecting responsible behavior, it also means empathy and compassion and responsiveness to the unique needs of individual children. It means that we as a society think about school discipline not as the management of problem kids but as part of our collective responsibility to care for our next generation.

When I look at that video, this is the broader question that comes to mind for me: Are we living up to our collective responsibility to these young people?

Teaching discipline is different from enforcing the law, and requires different techniques. If we farm out that part of education to the police--to a social institution whose lob is law enforcement, not education--we are falling short of our collective responsibility to our kids. Teaching discipline isn't easy. Sometimes it can be truly frustrating. And I can certainly understand why, in the midst of such frustration, it might be easier to drag a resistant student out of the room kicking and screaming.

When I look at this video, I don't just see one child and one police officer in one classroom. I see a warning about the effects of our social attitudes towards the education of our children. Too often, we see some of our kids as nothing more than troublemakers. We focus our educational efforts on those who are easier to work with precisely because they need us less urgently, precisely because they have stable homes and responsible parents and the resources to succeed.

And those who really need "the village" to help them in their struggle to learn how to live in the world? Those are the ones the village calls the cops on, to have them dragged out of the school kicking and screaming.

This isn't something a particular individual decides to do. It's the cumulative effect of countless unconscious choices by all of us. We favor social policies that reward the privileged and ignore the needy. We celebrate the successes of the kid who grew up with everything while ignoring the struggles of the kid who grew up with nothing. We look at classrooms where the struggling kids cause disturbances, and we decide that the solution is to criminalize their cries for help.

My fear is this: When we look at this video, we are horrified by what we see because it makes vivid in shocking terms the logical extension of our prevailing social attitudes. And we don't want to admit that this is what our attitudes really entail. And so we point fingers instead. We focus on the cop's failures. We blame the girl.

We do everything but admit we might be looking at a mirror.

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