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Video of middle school girls fighting raises question: How should teachers respond?

In this age of smart phones, we are treated to a never-ending stream of murky videos showing allegedly errant teachers.

With the national appetite for titillating news, we are also served up daily accounts of silly decisions by schools, such as the teacher at a private preschool last week who sent a note home reprimanding a mother for packing Oreos in her daughter’s lunch.

I don’t share many of those stories here on the blog as they have no policy implications for any other school, teacher or student. Most accounts of these teachers-done-something-crazy incidents are one-sided. Because of school privacy rules, we only get the outraged parent’s view, which can be summed up as, “My child did nothing wrong. She/he is the victim. The school is at fault.”

Sometimes, the school is at fault, but there's no way to make an accurate assessment based on a six-second video or the lone account of a student or parent. We need more facts, including what led to the altercation. Parents who tell TV reporters their child was not a threat weren’t in the school and can’t tell us what the teacher or other students felt.

A few years ago, the viral video of the moment showed a middle school teacher dragging a child down the hall. I couldn't conclude the teacher's actions were terrible without knowing more. Did the child have a habit of collapsing to the floor and refusing to move? Were classes about to change and put this prone 12-year-old in the path of 200 adolescents in a hurry? Had the teacher tried pleading with the child to get up for 10 minutes and finally lost patience?

If your child drops to a hallway floor and refuses to budge, what do you want the school to do? Leave him there? Get four more teachers and create a human shield so the child is not trampled by classmates?

Until I saw a troubled first-grader in full fury once, I had no idea the physical threat posed by an enraged 7-year-old. In seconds, tables were overturned, chairs thrown and classmates terrified. The teacher had two immediate and competing needs: Protect the other kids, some of whom were crying and cowering, or focus on the offender. Police were not called, but it was not an easy task to safely restrain the child; it required two adults.

The common theme in these viral videos is that schools used too much force to restrain a child, or, in the case of the current drama du jour, too little.

Below is classroom video of a fight in a DeKalb middle school. Watch it for yourself.

Should the teacher have gotten in the middle of the fight between two seventh grade girls? A male teacher once told me those fights are the toughest for him because of the risk of being accused later of an inappropriate contact if he waded into the scuffle. You then risk a second video going viral of a male teacher tussling with an adolescent girl.

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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.