George Lucas Educational Foundation
Classroom Management

Lessons from the Incident in South Carolina

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. 

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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,

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.