Working with teenagers can really suck sometimes. It’s humbling and frustrating and it can drive you to drink. We were all teenagers of varying degrees of horrifying at some point. Even the most mild of teens can be a tad horrifying. It’s almost like teenagers are from another planet at times. But no one, no one, and especially not those who choose to work with teenagers, should ever grab a teenager out of a chair and throw a teenager across a room.
If you don’t know, this time I’m responding to news out of a South Carolina high school. And let’s just set aside the safety and sanity of the girl who was thrown across the room for a second. The School Safety Officer who chose to do so also put other students in danger. When he flipped the chair, it could have hit the girl sitting behind the altercation. The girl who was the object of his actions could have kicked or hit someone else as well. This is not to mention the impact of witnessing an attack such as this. Witnessing violence hurts young brains.
So let us focus on the central incident. According to various reports, the School Safety Officer built up to his actions. He cleared the desk, he moved other desks and students out of the way, he prepared for a physical confrontation. And as someone who has dealt with various discipline issues involving teens, those actions are fairly expected and they can avoid further problems. Teenagers are unpredictable when challenged. And having a tug-of-war with a teenager about leaving a classroom is a challenge. It’s a power play.
However, when the representative of School Authority chose to turn over the student’s chair instead of stand over her chair, when he chose to throw her across the floor instead of repeating firmly the request to leave the room, when he chose defensive anger over swallowing his pride, he chose poorly.
School Safety Officers and Police Officers assigned to schools need to be chosen carefully and trained with sensitivity and high expectations. It is not easy to deflect taunts and insults and dares; doing so takes healthy ego and empathy. Few people are consistently successful. Teenagers are experts at finding buttons to push, and their emotions can be raw and unfiltered.
But School Authorities are obligated to de-escalate, defuse, dismantle situations whenever possible. Interacting with students is not a battle to win. Working with high school students is the long game; winning results won’t be seen for years in most cases. It is so very important to remember that every student is someone’s child, and School Authorities need to take In Loco Parentis seriously. Seriously enough to always, always be the adult in the room. And that aggravating, rude, rambunctious, rebellious teen you see today will probably turn out just fine. Or as fine as you did, anyway.
By the by. I didn’t address race issues in this post, and that was a conscious decision. I’ve seen School Safety Officers of many backgrounds behave in overly aggressive ways with students as well as angelically patient ways. However, we cannot deny that Black students are arrested at a much higher rate than students of other racial backgrounds. Arrests are no small thing. It’s serious business and can affect a young person’s life in hugely negative ways regardless of the judicial outcome. Black students are arrested at a rate that’s almost double the percent they represent in U.S. schools. That’s no glitch.
We all have inherent biases (yes, you.), and those who deny it are most susceptible to allowing them to grow. School employees in authoritative positions must be both aware of and willing to confront their biases when responding to typical teenage behavior. De-escalate first and teach by example, so that the students will be in school to learn better behavior later.