Spring Valley High: We Have the Video. We Don’t Have the Picture.
The various videos of the debacle that took place a few days ago in a math classroom at Spring Valley High School, Columbia, South Carolina, have become the latest hand-grenade being lobbed from left to right in the American race wars (or from right to left, as in the case of Christy Lee Parker’s appallingly obtuse and deeply sadistic, “Before You Applaud Termination Of Officer, Here’s The One Thing You Missed” post on the Mad World News blog).
Personally, I am reeling from the spin that is being put on the mistreatment of a teenage girl, but the violent, polarized, and polarizing knee-jerk responses on both sides of this issue leave me no less troubled – mostly because of what they fail to say.
An obvious place to begin is to acknowledge that cops have no business in classrooms unless somebody is waving a gun around. Another is recognizing both that “zero-tolerance” policies have a disproportionate and demonstrably deleterious impact on kids of color and that black and brown kids are much more likely to be punished and to be punished more severely for disciplinary “infractions.”
All that said, the fact is that maintaining classroom discipline (or let’s just call it what it is: a semblance of order) has become an enormous challenge in American public schools and even universities, and Parker isn’t wrong about that. Despite the fact that she is wrong about everything else.
She is, for example, a perfect fool when she asserts, without a shred of evidence, her version of the law-and-order/respect for authority trope: “We are raising a generation of entitled brats who think they are above all authority and the law.” (By “we,” of course, Parker really means “you” – you who are not her fellow “Christian conservative wives, mothers, and business owners,” but “you” who are raising bratty, authority-challenging thugs for children.)
The reality is different. Neoliberal education policies and generations of funding cuts mean more kids in classrooms and fewer (or no) aides to help them. Kids are no longer sorted according to individual needs. Rather, they’re thrown together in the same classrooms despite language difficulties, learning problems, or diagnosed emotional/psychological illnesses. Teachers are not trained to deal with all these situations.
There are few public-school programs left to respond to kids who could benefit from alternative learning environments, emotional support, meaningful special-ed, smaller classrooms, individualized instruction. There are virtually no counselors left on public-school campuses.
That the impact of these policies and these realities falls harder on kids of color and on kids in poorer schools is indisputable.
At the same time, you can be mad at teachers all you want and call them racist all you want, but a realistic response to the question of how we expect teachers to cope continues to be conspicuously absent.
Yes, in this particular case, the teacher should certainly have behaved differently.
Yes, in this particular case, the student’s back story is heart-rending, but my question becomes: Did anyone provide this information to the school? Because it beggars belief that a teacher, understanding that this student was in severe emotional stress and pain, would have responded as she or he did — especially if the school offered any real alternative to esclation and, ultimately, physical violence.
Now, I could certainly be wrong; the teacher might just be an asshole. Still, the specific incident is not rare; teachers face student discipline problems, even severe ones, every day.
About which there are two things to say: First, the idea that it is “racist” to ask for background information on what happened at Spring Valley High is absurd. It is racist if the only point of asking is to try to justify the cop’s behavior, which cannot be justified.
But it isn’t racist to ask whether the teacher and the school knew about this young woman’s emotional state and family circumstances and, if not, why they weren’t told. It isn’t racist to ask what support or alternatives the administration offered other than sending a cop. It isn’t racist to want to know more about the teacher’s classroom experience, including how much of a typical day is spent battling for order rather than engaging in actual teaching.
Otherwise, continuing to refer to that back story for the sole purpose of making the teacher’s and the cop’s behavior seem that much more dramatically hideous—that’s about spin and propaganda and not facts.
Second, it isn’t racist to want to discuss the larger issue of how classrooms got to be in the shape they are in or to ask what we expect teachers to do in response.
Yes, I understand. At the very least, we expect them not to call the cops unless there is a life-or-death situation. That requires no discussion.
But let’s get real. Beyond the extreme cases such as the one that has prompted the current outrage, what are they to do with overcrowded classrooms; defiant students (and, yes, there ARE defiant students and, no, it isn’t ALWAYS a matter of white teachers having prejudicial standards for black and brown students); disciplinary problems and disruptions; cell phones and other devices in constant use; bullying; students who don’t speak English well enough to participate and are, therefore, bored to death; students who simply cannot function in a class with 40 students, either because they need more individualized programs or because their emotional health is such that the large group is, in and of itself, a stressor; etc., etc.
Again, my point is not to defend this PARTICULAR teacher or soft-pedal this PARTICULAR situation, but the discussion has gone way, way beyond that. The discussion has now become a pious refrain on the left and the right: “What is going on in OUR classrooms?”
And the implication behind this semi-rhetorical question is just another chorus of the same old song: teachers are rotten.
So here’s what’s really going on in “our” classrooms.
In many public schools, we’ve created conditions in which few students can learn much; in which teachers are both stressed and sometimes actually scared of their students; in which a lack of respect really does exist (not the kind of respect that brown and black people “owe” white people, but the kind of respect that makes it possible for a teacher to function); in which overcrowding and understaffing have promoted rigid, one-size-fits-all policies because, realistically, there are few alternatives; in which police or police-equivalents (the “resource officer”; see, e.g., “A Short History of Cops Terrorizing Students” from The Nation) have been hired to take the place of counseling and guidance staff; and in which teachers are so severely underpaid and overworked that, quite frankly, the cream of the crop is not ending up in the classrooms that need them most, and that is especially true in poorer school districts, where teaching staffs are disproportionately younger and more inexperienced.
Go ahead and argue that teachers “should know” how to handle every kind of student and every kind of situation, but all that reveals is how little you know about the realities of teaching today.
I’ve taught in jails and juvenile detention centers; I’ve been physically attacked, spit on, and verbally abused by students. In one JDC, the largely unhelpful correctional staff managed to uncover one student’s plan to stab “the fag teacher and the nigger teacher” (I was the fag teacher, if you’re interested) and get him out of the school before it happened.
We had small classrooms and an aide in every one. I specifically did EVERYTHING I could think of before ever involving the custody staff because I knew they would overreact. Still, no one can know how to handle everything.
If we’re going to talk about “what is going on in our classrooms?,” then let’s talk about all of it. The impact of racist, broken-windows policies on black and brown kids but ALSO the impact on teachers and on education itself of what public schools and teaching careers have become in many places in the U.S.
I don’t defend this teacher. I don’t “understand” this teacher. (Never mind the cop, who deserved much worse than losing his job.)
But if we’re going to talk about this situation, let’s not pretend we’ve said something wise once we’ve pronounced the cop a monster and the teacher a bigot.
Let’s not pretend, by wrapping it all up in a neat package that fits the increasingly comfortable, 140-character “yet another racist incident” narrative, that we’ve actually done something progressive or “anti-racist.”
We haven’t. We’ve just used small words to give a different name to a big problem.
Update: See also Brenda Woods’ “Last Word” commentary of 28 October 2014 – Channel 11 News, Atlanta, Georgia.