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On Slamming Insubordinate Student Down

Is There a Reasonable Alternative

slam 3By now, most of you have repeatedly seen the shaky video that shows a police officer grabbing an insubordinate sixteen-year-old female student, Shakara, who is sitting at her desk. When the officer’s hand is very close to the student’s throat, she hits at his arm. The officer then flips her over and flings her to the front of the classroom.

slam 4The student reportedly refused to put away her cell phone and then refused to leave the class after repeatedly being ordered to do so. Subsequently, the police officer was fired for using inappropriate force and because his maneuver violated department policy and training.

 

The Media’s Criticism

Numerous media commentators expressed outrage at what had occurred, but none that I’m aware of provided a detailed description of what would have been a better way to handle such events. For example, a Washington Post story, penned by its editorial board, states:

slam 5There is no question the young girl involved in the incident was wrong in allegedly refusing the teacher’s request to stop using her phone, and in not leaving the classroom when asked. But there are methods short of slapping on handcuffs available to schools for dealing with disrespectful children. Not only does this girl now face criminal charges that could dog her for the rest of her life, but a classmate who recorded the incident on her cellphone was arrested as well. 

principal's officeThe principal’s office — not a police station — is where both should have ended up, and it is hard not to suspect that that would have been the outcome had the offending students been white. That underscores the need for school officials everywhere to take a hard look at their disciplinary systems for bias and put in place practices that make schools safe, and also inclusive, for all students.

Notice that the editorial advocates that this issue is best handled in the principal’s office. But what if the student is refusing to go there, as is apparently alleged in this case?

male-criticismIn an earlier post on this blog, I advocated that an essential feature of mature criticism is that it is provided with enough details so that the criticized person, if he or she wills, can improve the behavior, idea, or appearance. I have not found, even after an hour of scanning the various media reports and editorials about this disturbing incident that, in my opinion, adequately provides a description of what would be a better response than what actually occurred. So, in this post, I’ll try to model a more mature form of criticism.

An Example of Being Specific and Practical When Providing Criticism

The first step, in my opinion, is to clarify what happened because there are some conflicting reports. According to Shakara’s attorney, Todd Rutherford, she had obeyed orders to put her cellphone away, and the dispute arose because she did not put it away fast enough. He went on to say, “She wasn’t yelling. She wasn’t disrupting the class. She wasn’t a threat to anyone.”

Another female student in the class reported that her classmate had her cellphone in math class. “She just had it out. She wasn’t talking or anything.”

In contrast to these two reports, the Washington Post reported school officials alleged that Shakara refused to stop using her phone which can be viewed as disturbing the class. Other media outlets specifically used the word disturbing the class as a reason for the occurrence. For example, according to a report by WISTV.COM,

sheriff“The student was told she was under arrest for disturbing school and given instructions which she again refused,” Lott [Richland County Sheriff] said.

Just what was meant, specifically, by the phrase “disturbing the class” was not made clear. So, given these somewhat contrasting descriptions, I’ll first provide criticism that specifically lays out an alternative way to handle a situation in which the student is violating a specific school rule but is not disrupting the ongoing classroom lesson. Then we’ll turn to an alternative way to handle a situation in which the student is violating a specific school rule and is disturbing the ongoing classroom lesson.

cell phoneExample 1: In the event that the school had a policy that all cell phones are to be off and out of sight whenever a class is in session, as is true in my local school district, and a student is violating this rule without disturbing the class lesson, here is my suggestion for a response that would be, in my opinion, a distinct improvement over what apparently took place:

Teacher to Shakara: “There is a school rule that all phones are to be off and out of sight, Shakara. Please make sure your phone is shut off and place it out of sight.

Shakara, not complying, says, “The rule is unfair.”

Class Rules_thumbTeacher to Shakara: In a pleasant, authoritative (in contrast to an authoritarian) tone of voice, “If you believe a school rule is unfair, there are some things that you can do that won’t land you in trouble for being insubordinate. You can make an appointment with me and the principal, and if you would like, you can also bring to the meeting your parents and some other advocates with you, to make your case. There are groups of lawyers from the Legal Aid Society and perhaps the American Civil Liberties Union that might want to help you to change something you feel is unfair. If you are dissatisfied with what occurs at that meeting, you can work your way up the chain of command, setting up a meeting next with the district superintendent, and then, after that, to the Board of Education, and then into the civil court system. You have a perfect right to try to change rules like this, and I think it would be educational for you to consider doing this. However, if you want to try to change the rule by being insubordinate in class, as long as you are not disruptive, we’ll get on with the class. Afterwards, you will not be able to return to class until your parents are called, and you and they attend a meeting.  At that meeting, you will have an opportunity to explain your position. Then the school principal will decide what other consequences you will have to face for being insubordinate. Now, do you, or any other students in the class have any questions about this?”

After answering any questions, the teacher would then ask politely, “Shakara, I am now giving you your choice, either shut off your phone and put it out of sight, or face the insubordinate charge.”

If the student doesn’t comply, the teacher would then continue with the class lesson as long as the student does not disturb the rest of the curriculum’s lesson, and then, after the class has ended, she would report the insubordination to the principal.

I have timed how long this would take–approximately two minutes if the student or students don’t have any questions, and maybe another two or three minutes to answer a few questions. Compare that to the time that is now being spent by local officials because of this event.

Example 2: In the event that the student is acting in a way that is disturbing the curriculum lesson, the teacher would first use the above approach. Teacher-and-StudentIf the student decides to continue to disturb the class lesson, the teacher would sit by the student and say in a caring, concerned manner, “You are taking learning time away from your fellow students, Shakara. You now have an insubordination charge to deal with. You are making choices that are not fair to the other students in the class who want to be prepared to pass tests at the end of the year. Is everything ok? Why are you acting like this?”  The teacher would listen to the student. If she continues to remain uncooperative, the teacher would then say in a calm tone of voice, “I am now going to call an administrator to come to the class to help us out with this.”

When the administrator comes, he or she would say, “Let’s not take any more learning time away from your classmates, Shakara. I want you to come with me to the office, and we’ll try to work this out.”

If the student refuses to go with the administrator, the administrator would then call the school’s resource officer, and when he or she arrives, the administrator would tell the teacher to take the rest of the class to the library and to continue the lesson there. Shakara would be told to stay in the class until the rest of the class is gone.

If she was to try to leave with her class, the administrator and officer would gently block her from leaving, without putting any hands on her, just moving their bodies in between her and the door. Hopefully both would have had some training to do this. While doing this, Shakara would be informed that if she attempts to lay any hands on either the administrator or the officer while trying to leave, she will be risking an assault charge that can lead to her being arrested.

sheriff carsIf she does indeed choose to physically attack either school official, another set of officers would be called, and she would then be arrested. From my experience as someone who worked for thirty years in schools, at a juvenile correctional facility, and a child psychiatric center, in the presence of an administrator, the school officer, and two other police back-up officers, it is extremely unlikely that Shakara would have resisted arrest under this set of circumstances. If she does resist, she would be subjected to a physical arrest that follows standard police practice.

In the event that Shakara does not begin to physically attack those who are blocking her path to leave, once the other students have left the class, the administrator would sit beside her and ask softly, and in a  concerned, caring manner, “Are you ok?” He or she would listen, using reflective listening skills aimed at de-escalating the conflict. When the student has calmed down and shared her side of what happened, the administrator would say, “The rules of the school now require that we go to my office, and I’m to call your parents. Take your time. When you are ready to go with me to my office, we’ll do so.”

I have found that once the student’s peers are no longer present, face saving variables are dramatically reduced. The student quickly settles down and readily agrees to go to the office.

Conclusion

female-criticsmI am not trying to take the position that the approaches that I described as helpful alternatives are the only reasonable courses of action, or the best alternative. I encourage readers of this blog to make other suggestions. My larger point is that the details of my proposals well match the higher levels of mature criticism, in that they provide enough details so that those who are criticized can, in a practical manner, utilize the criticism if they choose to do so.

With that, I invite you to join us again real soon here at From Insults to Respect. Have a great week!

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Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on.  This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence.  To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.

Supreme Court Justices Dealing with Their Disagreements
Resolve Conflicts In Private Whenever Possible

About the Author

Jeffrey Rubin grew up in Brooklyn, received his PhD from the University of Minnesota and has taught conflict resolution there as well as at a psychiatric clinic, a correctional facility and a number of public schools. He has published articles on anger and conflict resolution and has authored three novels.

5 Comments

  1. I agree with the essence of your suggested approaches that the situation should have been handled with the minimum of aggression and physical violence. The girl was obviously already angry and upset about her personal circumstances and the confrontational behaviour of the teacher and other adults dramatically escalated the situation. I feel that all adults working with children and teenagers should receive training in how to deal with situations such as this and that it was lack of these skills that resulted in a policeman losing his job and the girl getting a criminal record. Perhaps its not too late for everyone to learn from it and to reverse some of the damage.

  2. Yes, Yes!!! Remove the class. Remove the audience!! It infuriated me to watch this video and to observe the other students who were sitting within striking distance and watching this go down. It also disturbed me that these students did not even ‘flinch’ when the violence escalated so close to them.

  3. Hi Wendy and Nancy. Thanks for your comments. It’s great to hear from people who support the idea that there are better ways to handle these types of situations than the way it went down. I was taken aback to hear so many people on the internet supporting the actions of the officer. I think that has to do with the lack of training people have received to carry out safer alternatives.

  4. Removing the audience is usually the most reliable method of the escalating a angry person. That’s true whether the person is a toddler or an adult. When I was in school that was the very first thing a teacher or administrator would do to get the situation under control. And I very rarely instances where any student or teacher was physically assaulted due to a disruption. It amazes me that schools have changed so much and It’s now acceptable for adults to essentially abused children and nothing is being DONE to reduce this occurrence. People say it’s not right, but talk is cheap so anyone can afford to have a opinion.
    I am very adamant about open communication with my childrens’ teachers and making sure their educators are aware of any difficulties child(ren) experiences . I also try to keep an open line of communication with my children so I know what’s going on with them and I’m aware of any behavioral changes that could affect them at home or at school. The administrators are aware that I am the first person they can call if my child’s behaviour becomes disruptive and interferes with the learning environment. I have children ranging from elementary to high school and contact with the school has helped in some very difficult situations; the police were not involved in any of them. I am my childrens’ greatest advocate as well as their disciplinarian. It starts at home.

    • Hi Alexis,

      Much thanks for your comment. At one point you wrote, “The administrators are aware that I am the first person they can call if my child’s behaviour becomes disruptive and interferes with the learning environment.” Nice. I hope all parents take a lesson from you on this issue. When parents and their child’s school personnel are working together, rather than at odds with one another, students tend to do better in all aspects of the academic endeavor.

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