In a post after the massacre at the Emanuel Afican Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, Latoya Peterson—a cultural commentator and anti-racist activist at fusion.net—expressed a sentiment that permeates the fight for racial justice: “the silence of our friends is violence.” (Hat tip to Jose Vilson.)
I teach my students to be “upstanders” when they are witness to violence, and in that spirit I want to express solidarity with those educators and activists speaking out against the assault of a black student at Spring Valley High in South Carolina by school resource officer Ben Fields.
In case you haven’t seen it, here’s the incident.
As a classroom teacher for more than 10 years, I understand that high school students can be defiant and disrespectful. Like most teachers, I have witnessed violent and hate-filled actions by teenagers. This is not a positive part of my job, but it is a part of my job. I know I must commit to helping students grow socially and emotionally as well as academically. This means that I set boundaries and follow through with consequences when students act in a way that is outside those boundaries.
However, there is nothing the young woman at Spring Valley High could have done to warrant the treatment we see in the video. There is no justification for Officer Fields to behave the way he did. There is no excuse for the school district to drag its feet in apologizing and restoring justice by holding those responsible accountable.
In the face of this appalling incident, we must name the wrongs that have been committed and think together about alternative ways of acting or risk committing another act of violence by remaining silent.
The issues raised by this incident speak to some of the key aspects of the fight for justice that I support in schools. Roxane Gay shared helpful thoughts on the safety of black children and Ta-Nehisi Coates explained to all of us (including his son) that government forces “have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body.” My friend Matthew Guldin, a veteran educator and organizer, is a resource on how to reform school discipline practices. Chris Lehmann and Jose Vilson discussed their own practice as educators in schools in the wake of the incident. The discussion within the Twitter community #educolor gives the opportunity to engage with and learn from educators and activists who are working toward racial justice in education.
These experts have helped me understand the issues at play in that Spring Valley High classroom and given me a knowledge base from which to act when I am in a situation that could turn violent. They make me ask: what would I do if a student in my class were treated like the young woman at Spring Valley High?
I confronted a student last week in the hall. He is a person of color, has a disability, and is struggling academically. He had been making faces at students in my classroom from the hallway in an attempt to distract them during the previous period. During the course of our interaction I accidentally bumped his shoulder with a clipboard I was carrying. Already in a heightened state, the young man smacked the clipboard, knocking it the floor and shouted at me.
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.
Our schools and communities are complicated places where power, privilege, and oppression intersect in ways that will not always be cut-and-dry. In this context, young people are going to do things we don’t want them to do. Teenagers are going to do things like sit in their desks even though they are asked to leave and smack clipboards in frustration.
Those of us in positions to guide interactions in these communities must understand this complexity. We have a responsibility to the students we educate, the taxpayers who pay our salaries, and the communities who entrust us with their children to de-escalate violence and teach students to effectively solve problems. We abdicate that responsibility when we are the ones who act violently.
Photo 1: “Silence is Violence” artwork by a 10th grader at Harvest Collegiate High School
Photo 2: “Restorative Justice” artwork by 11th grader at Harvest Collegiate High School Isabelle Dorvillier, photo by Joshua Vasquez
The opinions expressed in Prove It: Math and Education Policy are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.