Battle scars

In this age of smart phones, we are treated to a never-ending stream of murky classroom videos showing educators purportedly acting badly. With social media’s appetite for fresh outrage, we are served daily accounts of silly decisions by schools, such as the teacher at a private preschool who sent a note home reprimanding a mother for packing Oreos in her daughter’s lunch.

The amount of media attention to these occurrences surprises me, as they are often isolated incidents with no policy implications for any other school, teacher or student. Most accounts tell only side of the story. Because of school privacy rules, we only get the outraged parent’s view, which essentially is: “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 word of the student or parent. We need more facts, including what led to the altercation. Parents who assure TV reporters their child did nothing wrong weren’t in the school and can’t tell us how the teacher or other students felt.

One viral video showed a middle school teacher dragging a child down the hall. I couldn’t join the chorus condemning the teacher 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 the 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? Gather 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 of the physical threat posed by an enraged 7-year-old. In seconds, tables were overturned, chairs thrown and classmates terrified. The teacher faced 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 themes in these viral videos are that schools used too much force to restrain a child or, in the case of the current drama du jour, too little. A widely watched cell phone video last week of two seventh graders fighting in a DeKalb County middle school led to criticisms the male teacher failed to intervene and stop the pair. Instead, the man called the office.

Somehow, the villain of a video of adolescents pummelling one another became the teacher and not the combatants. Should the teacher have gotten in the middle of the fight between two middle school girls? A male teacher once told me those fights are the toughest because of the risk of being accused later of inappropriate contact if he waded into the scuffle. Male teachers then risk a video going viral of them tussling with an adolescent girl.

A teacher on my AJC education blog shared an experience about breaking up a fight between two fifth grade girls that illustrates the risks: “I was punched in the face and knocked to the ground. Another time I intervened when one student was atop another smashing the prone student’s head against the hard floor. I pulled the aggressor off the other student and went to try and help the injured student.

“The aggressor then picked up a heavy wooden chair and tried to hit me over the head with it. I just managed to duck to the side and he hit my shoulder instead. The parent threatened to sue because I ‘touched her baby,’ and the student was back in my classroom the next day having suffered zero consequences. And people wonder why we cannot get good people to join this profession.”

I don’t wonder.