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School violence: Can we stop the blaming and look for solutions?

Myra Blackmon writes a column for the Athens Banner-Herald. A retired owner of  a public relations firm, Blackmon earned a master's of education from the University of Georgia in learning, design and technology.

A regular volunteer in Clarke County schools, Blackmon wrote this essay for the AJC Get Schooled blog. In it, she discusses the complex issues raised by the South Carolina incident in which a sheriff's deputy lost his job for throwing a female high school student onto the floor.

The incident last week began with a teen's use of a cellphone in class and her refusal to go to the office after being asked by a teacher and administrator.

By Myra Blackmon

In the wake of the incident at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C., we have seen analysis and opinion that run the gamut from condemnation of the police officer to vilification of the student.

Many people are concerned with out-of-control students and schools where unruly students escape consequences and teachers routinely fear for their safety.

While schools can be tough environments, many of the claims of violence and disruption are not borne out by the statistics. Granted, we are seeing a lack of respect for authority, a problem that can be traced back to the home.

But public schools must take whatever students show, not just those who have been “raised right” in their homes. And students come with all sorts of stresses and emotional issues that many of us cannot begin to understand.

What works best with these most challenging students is not punishment, but extra support, according to the research. Extra counselors, tutors to help them catch up with their school work and coaching to develop ways to cope with their personal challenges have been shown to make a difference.

With most school guidance counselors expected to support up to 500 students, there is little time to work one-on-one with a troubled student. Growing class sizes make it more difficult for teachers to identify and work with kids who need intervention or extra support.

As a nation, we are facing a perfect storm created by confluence of three trends, none of which on its own was particularly positive, but which combined generate an explosive atmosphere: zero tolerance, letting rules trump common sense and the militarization of our police forces.

Our communities, and particularly our schools, have gone overboard with zero tolerance policies. A child with a one-inch plastic pistol attached to a backpack zipper gets the same treatment and punishment as one who brings a loaded pistol to school. We all know other instances zero-tolerance has backfired.

Often, our response to one negative incident is to make a rule that will prevent that same thing from happening again. In a school setting, that trumps a teachers’ judgement, and frequently prescribes a response guaranteed to escalate rather than resolve a situation.

A high school teacher recently told me about a student who was having trouble in her class one day. Instead of relying on “disciplinary” measures, the teacher asked the girl if she would like to leave class. The child burst into tears before getting out of the room. It turns out that her brother had been killed in an automobile accident the day before and she had come to school to try to get some sense of normalcy while her parents made funeral arrangements.

Had this teacher taken things a different direction, who knows how this distraught child might have reacted? There was nothing normal about her day, and a sensitive teacher was confident enough to skip all the rules about classroom behavior and do what was best for the child. And get her out of the classroom. Administrators in the hallway immediately picked up on the problem and got the girl the support she needed at that moment.

It doesn’t take but a minute to compare that scenario to the one in South Carolina to see that how the adult in charge responds to a situation has a tremendous impact on subsequent events.

This over reliance on rules and zero tolerance has also led to the criminalization of what used to be just bad teenage behavior. When I was in high school, every couple of years some idiot would put a cherry bomb in a toilet, or steal a turkey and put it in the school courtyard over a weekend.

They were caught and punished. They worked to make restitution to the school, or the farmer who was wronged. There were consequences. Most of them learned their lessons and became productive adult citizens. Now our zero tolerance for breaking any rules means that a kid caught doing one stupid thing may have a criminal record. It also takes a “guilty until proven innocent” approach to the discipline of teenagers.

Finally, much has been written about the militarization of our police forces. Not only are most forces now equipped with far more powerful equipment than is required for ordinary community protection, there are more police officers with combat experience—and the issues that come from that—as a result of our years of war. Of necessity, military training teaches aggressive responses necessary for survival in a combat setting. But it takes more than a few weeks of police training to unlearn those responses, so officers may overreact to situations that could be defused.

Combine those three, and we have a perfect formula for unnecessary violence in our schools and in our streets. This is not a time to place blame, but to step back and think what about the environments we want for our children’s learning. We need to revisit all our rule books with an eye to increasing teacher autonomy and getting rid of prescriptive rules that are applied too broadly. We need to re-think the role and training of resource officers in our schools.

Now is the time for thoughtful conversation, not knee-jerk demands for law-and-order responses.



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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.