by GEHRY OATEY
[School Foodies: This week I needed to step away from the 12-step program to school food recovery in order to address a burning issue that surfaced recently at my public middle school here in Oakland. It may in fact be something that you have dealt with before.]
This past week at my school, a security guard was put on administrative leave for physically restraining a middle-school student for a viscous verbal assault. As someone who has witnessed numerous harmful verbal and physical incidents with this particular student, it is difficult not to jump to the conclusion that the student deserved to be disciplined in this way. He told the security guard that ‘he fucked his mother’ after being told numerous times to be quiet and walk away. He then continued to taunt the security guard in front of other teachers and students.
However, after further reflection on this set of circumstances (and to add a twist here—this particular student is the grandson of the principal and has been given numerous second chances while other students who have committed lesser or equal offenses have been DHP’d or kicked out of the school), I snapped to the realization that of course we can’t put a hand on kids unless it is a matter of safety to others. By no means should we be sponsoring physical force in schools… Or should we? Are there extreme cases where without that physical force we actually enable the student in future situations and thereby cause future harm to the community?
The same student was rescued by the same security guard two weeks earlier when four gang members came to school to beat him up. One of these individuals is currently being held as a suspect in last week’s murder of a 13-year old on the streets of Oakland.
The security guard who physically restrained the student is on administrative leave, the student who verbally abused him is suspended until the end of the year, and there is a dead 13-year old whose suspected killer is a recent graduate of our middle school.
The dilemma that exists here is the question of consistent and clear discipline. I am sure all of you have knee-jerk reactions to physical discipline and realize the importance of a school-wide discipline policy. We live in a community where the concept of force even by police officers is highly frowned upon. So here is the question I’m struggling with: Is it ever appropriate at school to restrain a student who is verbally assaulting a teacher? How do you strike a balance between keeping schools safe and ensuring productive and open learning environments?
Pedro Noguera’s New York City Middle School Task Force says (see p. 51-53) that in issues of safety and discipline, “…middle schools must establish meaningful disciplinary practices that effectively deter inappropriate or violent behavior.” It also calls for schools to be given resources to comply with the Safe Schools Against Violence Act including a ‘SAVE’ room, and for the clarification of educators’ role in school discipline.
In our school situation, this clarification is a grey area. I would be willing to bet that it is a grey area in most urban public schools. Do all of you know the rights of the teacher and the rights of the student around specific issues of discipline including issues of verbal and physical assault? Is there ever a case when we as teachers are permitted to put our hands on another student? I hope not. But then again, what are we supposed to do in this case, ask for clarification while a potential situation spirals out of control?
For those of you working in schools where discipline may not reach these extremes, this may seem like a protocol/policy issue. However, I am again reminded that this is an issue of equity, where urban public schools are being asked to deal with issues they have neither the resources or training to deal with. As public school budgets get slimmer, the chances of obtaining such resources dwindle.
What should happen to this student? What should happen to the security guard who is trying to ensure a ‘safe’ place for students? What can schools do to make sure that verbal and physical abuse doesn’t take place on their school campus? Should schools be responsible for students who are enabled by an institutional failure to address certain behavior? This is an issue that is burning out teachers and feeding into a society plagued by youth violence.