In Wake of Spring Valley, Teachers Share Ideas on De-Escalating Conflicts

By Elisha McNeil — November 05, 2015 5 min read
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How can teachers effectively de-escalate conflicts with students?

By now, you’ve probably heard of the incident that occurred at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina between a female student and a school resource officer that made headlines last week. According to reports, the student refused to leave class after having used her cell phone, despite being told by her teacher and a school administrator to do so. That’s when Deputy Sheriff Ben Fields was called in for assistance in removing the student. In the ensuing viral video, Fields can be seen violently removing the girl from her desk and then dragging her across the classroom.

The incident raised tough questions on how teachers should handle uncooperative students in the classroom. In response, educators and experts across the nation have been sharing their input on how they would have handled this and similar situations. We offer some highlights here:

Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina law enforcement professor, suggests removing other students from the room as one solution.

The girl broke a school rule by using her cell phone in class--but the teacher could have spoken to her quietly, even when she refused to surrender it, rather than delay the lesson for everyone else, Alpert said, according to AP.

Even when the girl refused to leave her seat, Alpert asks, “Why didn’t they call a school counselor? She’s not doing anything to hurt anyone. She’s just being disruptive.”

Former Los Angeles teacher and blogger Walt Gardner shares a strategy that he says usually works to avoid escalating the tension.

“First, I would make sure that students understand that electronic devices are to be turned off during class. That’s the easy part, which rarely works as the semester wears on and students get bored.”

“Second, I would signal by a frown, rather than by a command, to the offender to put away the device. That allows the student to avoid losing face. The student still has the device, but without having to overtly back down.”

“Third, if the offender continued, I would tell the student to stand outside the classroom while I continued with the lesson. I would say that we need to talk in private after the bell. Only if the offender ignored all of the above would I summon campus security.”

Kenneth Zeichner, a University of Washington education professor, says force should only be applied if weapons are involved or if there is danger to the other students.

“When a student fails to co-operate with a teacher, the first step is to encourage a dialogue and get the student to leave the classroom,” Zeichner said in an interview with BBC. “If this fails and the student continues to disrupt class, they are expected to bring in a more senior figure to negotiate compliance. Ideally, they would turn to a counselor or social worker who could better engage the student.”

“In a worst case scenario, where the pupil continues to present an issue, the teacher may ask the rest of the class to leave.”

“The goal is the safety of the students.”

New York teacher and blogger John McCrann shares how he responded to a disruptive student during a confrontation. McCrann accidentally bumped the student’s shoulder with his clipboard, in which the student responded by smacking the clipboard to the floor and shouting at McCrann.

“My first thought was, ‘how dare this kid, I better yell right back so he knows never to mess with me again.’ But that is not what I did.”

“I have learned from mentors about how to de-escalate this type of situation. I did not react emotionally. I told the student that he could not act this way toward adults. We moved away from one another and our assistant principal continued the conversation later that period, discussing what had been going on and what consequences he would face for his behavior. We will convene a fairness committee where I will apologize for bumping him and will hope to hear—and accept—his apology for disrupting my class and acting aggressively towards me.”

Thomas Bennett, a U.K. school behavior expert, told BBC the biggest mistake that teachers make is thinking they have to deal with the student then and there.

“If they’re quiet, teachers are advised to continue on with the lesson, and then make sure they are suspended or removed from school after. If they’re persistently disruptive, you ask for someone more senior to come along. This senior figure does not have to be a police officer; instead it can be a principal or counselor.”

Honolulu teacher and blogger Christina Torres says unless a student is actively and physically threatening the safety of another person, there’s no reason an adult should have any physical altercation with a student.

“If a student doesn’t respond to my initial redirection (normally, a whisper or a note saying, ‘hand me your phone, please,’ or ‘put your phone away and let’s get on task’), I give them a few minutes. If a student is reluctant, I’ll walk away for a few minutes, return, and then repeat myself.”

“If a student is silently refusing to do work, I may just write them a note saying, ‘How’s it going? I’d like you to get on task. We can also talk after class today/at break/in 10 minutes about how you’re doing.’”

“If the entire class is being disrupted ... I might ask a student to step outside, and make it clear I want to give them some space, and say something like, ‘Why don’t you just take a minute outside and get some air. I’ll be out in a second so we can talk.’”

“If the student still refuses, then I may involve people outside my room. I try and make it clear what I believe the general outcome will be, and offer them a few ways we can get to there. ‘You can either go to the office now, or you can head next door and then we can go to the office after class. Either way, we need to have a discussion in the office, so how would you like to have that happen?’”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.