George Lucas Educational Foundation

Lessons from the Incident in South Carolina

Lessons from the Incident in South Carolina

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Like so many who have seen video of the school resource officer in South Carolina tackle and toss the female high school student, I was shocked and sickened. Understandably, his unbridled aggression has led to a preponderance of comments on social media that have condemned the officer's conduct as excessive and unnecessary. Others have focused on the student's display of disrespect for authority by refusing to comply with a request to put her cell phone away in class, and see it as representative of a much larger social problem that should not be tolerated. Both conclusions seem reasonable and are worthy of further exploration. However, as an educator I thought about how this incident may well have been a missed opportunity for a teacher and principal to connect with a troubled child. As well, it is a very sad example of how quickly a relatively minor discipline problem can get out of hand and become explosive if mishandled. 

Although I wasn't present and cannot comment directly on what exactly happened in that classroom, I have many times witnessed a teacher asking or telling an oppositional student to do something aloud and for the student to refuse. After being asked again to either comply or leave class, some angrily make a scene and leave while others like this girl, refuse. The principal is then summoned and becomes involved. In this incident, it seems the principal essentially told the student either privately or publicly to leave class and when she again refused, the school resource officer was called. Once that occured, the matter was placed in the hands of someone trained as a law enforcement officer, not an educator. 

Escalations like this don't need to happen. Here's how:

1. In the classroom, when students are misbehaving non-violently, they should be told respectfully and privately to redirect their behavior with words like "Please" and "I'd appreciate it if you would."

2. Ideally, before a behavioral incident occurs, teachers should tell their students that they will rarely interrupt class to give a consequence or otherwise deal with a misbehaving student during instructional time. Instead, let students know that most of the time the incident will be handled after class. Doing so in this way, lets students know that misbehavior is not ignored. It is simply dealing with it in a manner that is meant to maximize instruction and allows both the teacher and student to save face.

When procedures are set up this way, if a student does not comply, just walk away and continue teaching the lesson. In the South Carolina incident, if the teacher was concerned that by ignoring she might lose the respect of other students, she could have said, "Some of you might be wondering what I'm going to do since (student's name) refuses to put her phone away. Later on she and I will figure that out. But thanks to the rest of you for keeping your cell phones where they belong." Then return to the lesson.

3. After the principal was summoned, if the student was asked privately and respectfully to leave with him and she refused, there were two other ways to defuse. If she wasn't preventing other students from learning, he could have said while leaving, "It looks like things are under control for now. We'll take care of this later." Another option would have been for him to stay in class and if need be, sit near the student.

4. Educators must work continuously to build and sustain a positive relationship with difficult students. The best way is through expressions of caring and concern. In South Carolina, perhaps that teacher could have met after class with the student and said, "We both know that having a cell phone out is against school rules and we need to figure out what to do about that. But your refusal to follow the rules gives me a feeling that you are upset, disappointed or angry about something or things that are happening at school or outside and I worry about that. Let's deal with that first. What's going on?"

While there are many frustrations educators face in having to deal with unmotivated and disrespectful students, this incident underscores how the outcome of a power struggle depends so much on what we say and how we say it. More importantly, it should remind us all that the kids who are the most difficult to like need to be liked the most. I suspect that more literal or figurative hugs for this child could have prevented her from being hurled.

What are your thoughts?

Written by: Dr. Allen Mendler, allenmendler@rocketmail.com


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Dr. Tom Mawhinney's picture
Dr. Tom Mawhinney
Touro College professor teaching graduate education courses

Allen - I appreciate your comments and your suggestions are noteworthy if not essential for every teacher. I disagree with Ms. Martin as one can see by the passive acceptance of the resource officer's behavior by the other students in the class. This is another case where the adults in the building need to leave their ego at the schoolhouse door. To comply with your recommendations means one has to recognize when that little voice in one's head says "who do you think you are?" This is not easy - look at the way countries have modeled this behavior over time. Ego awareness is something we all could learn. It would make schools and the world a better place.

James Frier's picture
James Frier
Dean of Students

There are some great suggestions in this post about how the teacher and principal could have gone about this situation and, hopefully, this is a lesson learned. As the Dean of a school, I've confronted this exact situation countless times. 99% of the time, when I am summoned to the room, I speak softly and quietly to the student to come take a walk with me and the issue is resolved. For the 1% of time that a student is absolutely disruptive in his or her defiance (not allowing the teacher to move on with the lesson), I will briefly interrupt instruction and move the rest of the class into another room (or the cafeteria). Taking away the audience along with the impending consequences have always been enough in these extreme situations. Though I can imagine the rare circumstance where the student tries to get up and mobilize with the class, this has never happened. Just my thoughts!

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Misty Brown's picture

Children are often irrational, and the concept that age or position automatically entitles a person to respect is archaic. Respect and trust are earned. As educators, we are granted a rare gift in that most students will immediately trust and respect us. However, when our students don't immediately respect us, demanding that respect based on position or age is counter-productive. Additionally, with students for whom trust and respect are difficult and not lightly given, it is the teachers' job to create a safe and respectful learning environment. We do that, in part, by modelling respect at all times, regardless of how students react to us. We are the adults in this situation, and as Dr. Mawhinney stated, our egos should be left at the door. If a student is able to provoke you into an angry or explosive reaction, you may want to reconsider your choice to teach or consider therapy development to help you control your emotions and reactions. I'm not saying students won't make you angry or frustrated, but I am saying that as an educational professional you should be able to control your reaction and remind yourself that, ultimately, you are still dealing with children. And if a student behaves like this young woman, it should be an educator's reaction to wonder why rather than take umbrage and see it as a threat to personal authority. The role of educational professionals is so much more than state standards and tests. We are often in the best position to notice behaviors that indicate a problem. Life is no longer about you when you walk into that building.

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

Susie- I too have observed some chaotic classrooms where things play out as you describe. I will say that even in classrooms with some very challenging students, a combination of the suggestions in this post along with what my son calls teaching with 'BEEP' (belief, energy, enthusiasm, passion) keeps the kinds of concerns you wrote about to a minimum. There are some instances, where one or more students may have excessive emotional needs that are virtually impossible to meet in a classroom that emphasizes academics. For one reason or another, these kids remain in regular classrooms without sufficient support provided. Everyone loses valuable instructional time. Ideally, these kids need to be in a more specialized setting or more specialized resources need to brought to the classroom. Without either, teachers are wise to identify, delegate and use available people and resources to which they have access, in order to ensure their own well-being and that of their students. I will often advise teachers in that situation to make a wish list of things and personnel they would like to have to do their job more effectively. Typically identified are things such as someone to do more one-on-one tutoring; someone to take a walk with an agitated student; a place to send a student to cool down; extra supplies. Then match the need(s) with resources at school that can provide some relief (i.e. an older student(s) who can take a regular long walk(s) with kids who have excessive needs for movement or to tutor; a colleague or two to whom you can send an agitated student when you need a break; a colleague of younger students for whom your challenging student(s) can be a helper for a portion of the day; citizen volunteers to be a "friend; other resource people such as office workers, custodian, cafeteria workers to provide a temporary non-academic work alternative; other students in your class who can each partner for tasks over brief intervals with student(s) who are unproductive on their own). Finally and perhaps most importantly is for teachers to take good emotional care of themselves by being difficult to offend and quick to forgive.

Scott Hollan's picture

Always know that the adult in the room is in charge. Always do the right thing. Losing may be winning in the long run. Never let them see you sweat is a cliche but, so true. You must not be de-railed, rather just go on and live to fight another day.

Dr. Allen Mendler's picture
Dr. Allen Mendler
Author, speaker, educator

In suggestion #4 there is a word omitted and a period placed in the wrong spot that makes the example sound a little awkward. Sorry about that. It should read:

".......But your refusal to follow the rules gives me a feeling that you are upset, disappointed or angry about something or things that are happening at school or outside and I worry about that. Let's deal with that first. What's going on?"

samsic's picture

Tant qu'il n'y aura pas un changement de comportement des policiers et surtout de ceux qui les soutiennent, ces genres d'incidents continueront d'arriver. Et un risque de revolte des black peut bien survenir et les choses empireront.
Il faut que les mentalites changent aux USA et cela concerne tout le monde. C'est la societe americaine qui est malade, a mon avis.

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Comme tu dis, Samsic, il faut que les mentalites evoluent. Mais j'hesite a dire que ce soit seulement un probleme uniquement americain. Je ne crois pas que c'est ce que tu dis, mais j'ajoute un peu a la conversation, n'est-ce pas. Il y a beaucoup a faire pour que les mentalites evoluent partout sur notre petit planete. Nous esperons tous un monde meilleur, non? Que nous soyons noirs, blancs, ou n'importe, nous devons tous faire de notre mieux pour pousser dans la bonne direction, et surtout avec les jeunes dans nos cours qui prendrons le relais a l'avenir. Quand je parle avec mes eleves, je retrouve de l'espoir que ce sera possible! Et toi? Qu'en penses-tu?
Merci pour ton message. Amities,
Don

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