Saturday, October 31, 2015

Disturbing Schools

Way back when I was a teenager in a northern state, at a really predominantly white middle class high school, a few smartasses thought it would be a riot to paint murals of our geometry teacher on a large prominent window over the weekend.  He was a sweet guy who got a bit confused at times.  These geniuses learned that he had been a boxer; we all assumed he'd been punched one too many times.  It was also rumored that his name in the ring was "Killer Kells," although this may have just been my classmates' creative genius at work.  Each weekend, for a number of weeks, there would be admittedly clever but truly cruel paintings of "The Killer," bald head shining.  As the weeks progressed, the school administration got faster at removing the evidence, so that eventually it was being removed by Monday morning so that no one ever saw it, the thrill of the crime was gone and the vandalism stopped.  Poor Killer.

As juniors in French class, we all took great pleasure in refusing to speak French.  A few hecklers would entertain us and, again, rumor has it, we drove one of these two very dear women to early retirement.

And of course there were fights.  There are always fights in high schools.  There are always kids that talk back to teachers, that hang out in the bathrooms instead of going to class, who refuse to do what they are supposed to do.

In 1962, South Carolina adopted the "disturbing schools" law.  It remains on the books, and because it is vague and overreaching, it can be used to justify pretty much any police involvement in a school.  School resource officers have become an integral part of middle and high schools, theoretically selected and trained to be positive role models and actual legal resources for students, teachers and administrators.  Some actually do that.  Others, like Officer Ben Fields, bring his aggressive, even militaristic, attitude to his job.  He seems to have neither the skills nor the training to help him understand why teens would act out, and what represents an actual threat versus a troubled kid giving a teacher a hard time.  And how each of those cases require different interventions.

We can probably thank the mindset that created and maintained the "disturbing schools" law for that.  It's a spare the rod and spoil the child 1950's philosophy to which too many parents, voters and legislators continue to adhere.  The punishment mentality has far more to do with sex education in our schools than any desire to reduce the risk of teen pregnancy.  And here in South Carolina, it is no surprise that, along with teaching the perennial and negligibly effective D.A.R.E. program, Fields was football coach.  I have to say that it would take an unusual personality to be successful at coaching football and be able to relate to non-jocks, and particularly girls.  Ben Fields was not that personality.  He has been accused of excessive force (charges dropped), had in 2006 been accused of battery during an arrest of a black woman, and has a trial coming up in January against a charge of racism and false accusations towards a black student.

We know that the Catholic Church moved clergy around rather than take action after accusations of sexual assault.  We know that often people are promoted out of a situation where they have created problems.  I would not be surprised if a police officer who has had incidents of questionable behavior and lawsuits is moved from the streets into the schools, where the assumption is that the job would be less challenging and sadly, more out of the public view.

Of course, being a coach usually means that you can count on the loyalty of your team members.  In this case, students have spoken in his defense, of what a good guy he is and that he is not a racist.  On Friday, there was a walk-out to protest Fields' firing.  And even though Sheriff Leon Lott did the right thing by firing Lott, in his remarks he repeated that the student was in the wrong.  He congratulated the students who had recorded the incident, but has stood behind the arrest of the young woman who spoke out against Fields' assault as it was happening.

Let us not forget that Leon Lott was one of several sheriff's that acquired an MRAP, an armored personnel vehicle, that he nicknamed the "Peacemaker."  Lott said he planned on using the tank for "community policing programs and for personnel protection."  A spokesman for Lott said, "it's been a great icebreaker for kids and adults."  The attitude of might makes right permeates Lott's philosophy of law enforcement.

So while we should make our top priority getting rid of those "school resource officers" that believe that force is their best resource, there are underlying and long-lived philosophies about the best way to care for -- and discipline -- our kids when they are at school.

Our kids can make us all feel powerless and frustrated.  Teachers, here in South Carolina, often with classes too large, inadequate administrative support, low pay and not enough training, will face more and worse behavior problems.  That is what needs to be addressed in the long run.  Firing the problem resource officer (which appears would have been unlikely to happen without the video proof) is easy.  Improving the schools, and changing the attitude that resists improving the schools, is the hard part.  Let us not say impossible.

On the other hand, our lawmakers know nothing if not how to slow down and prevent progress.  Even though the Supreme Court found in favor of the Abbeville School District and is requiring the state to look at and change the funding formula that disadvantages rural schools, little progress has been made, nor is expected to be made.  And this is merely to meet our own low bar of bringing all districts up to "minimally adequate."  With that in mind, we are expecting our kids to spend most of their waking hours in places we adults would not frequent, loud and raucous classes full of students who frankly have bigger problems of their own.

And that really is it in a nutshell.  If you have ever had to go to work with a big problem on your mind, you understand how hard it is to concentrate, or to feel that your job is just that important.  If it is a job that gives no pleasure or support, if the work feels meaningless, and you have your own problems that you are wrestling with...

...well, imagine kids with their own troubles having to sit in those classrooms and be compliant for hours every day.

Better paid, trained and supported teachers is a start.  Smaller classrooms, counselors rather than officers.

Now that that one bad officer has been fired, how about tackling the hard job of fixing the schools?

1 comment:

  1. All true. You can trace almost every aspect of this sorry incident at Spring Valley High School to a state legislature that refuses to do its job and ultimately to a majority of voters who are satisfied with the worst school system in the nation.