The death of Sandra Bland and the school-to-prison pipeline have more in common than the race of their victims. Both are also quintessential examples of how wrong things can go when authority figures escalate minor situations into major ones.
The most effective police officers and teachers know how to de-escalate contentious situations and calm angry people. Their success stems in part from the relationships and trust they establish with those they serve. They exude respect, including those over whom they have authority.
Gasoline on a fire is a metaphor I’ve used for years to describe what often happens between teachers who feel disrespected and students who feel the same. The educators who succeed most in this area are those who have established relationships of mutual respect with their students.
This positive foundation allows them to actually interact productively with students who are angry, defiant and even out of control. They do not overlook the bad behavior; on the contrary, they hold students accountable for their choices but they allow for students to regain control and be heard rather than feeling cornered into a spot where any chance for a positive outcome has been lost.
Trouble often becomes inevitable when authority figures start down the dangerous path of “putting someone in their place.” It starts when a citizen (or student) questions them or shows defiance, then a power struggle ensues and the teacher or law enforcement officer, intentionally or unintentionally, escalates the situation.
‘I’ve Done It’
I know this because I’ve done it, more than once, as a classroom teacher (and as a mother). I didn’t mean to escalate a situation or provoke my students but ultimately, that’s what happened.
My frustration overtook my empathy and the simple truth is, I lost control. Ideally, I would have walked away to regroup. But as the teacher in a room full of students, walking away wasn’t an option. So, with my words, body language and tone of voice, I pushed students away who I really needed to pull in closer.
I could have discreetly put a sticky note on their desk to say we’d talk later. I could have used a bit of humor and whispered in their ear that despite my love for them, they were driving me a little nuts. I could have thought of an errand for them to do so that they could cool down.
I should have done better. But sometimes the energy, time and creativity needed simply elude us.
You Gotta Own It
I can’t count the number of times that I’ve watched interactions between teachers and students go off the rails because of the escalation of both parties. But the adult, the authority figure, is the one who has to be better. We are the ones with the power to de-escalate and give students the space they need to walk away until they feel more in control.
I vividly remember writing notes to my students later in the day (after losing my cool) to apologize for my actions and to share my ideas of how we could make things better while also asking for their ideas. Perhaps the most important lesson learned was that our students deserve and like to hear “I’m sorry” when we, the grown-ups, mess up.
Apologies make people feel valued. Distrust begins to crumble when the seemingly powerful apologize to those who feel powerless.
Douse the Fire, Change the Trajectory
The simple fact is that we are suspending too many students from school, particularly students of color, for defiance, disruption and the use of profanity. When we escalate, we know that we are leading students down the inevitable path of swearing at a teacher or damaging school property by punching a wall or a locker. And school policy often prescribes suspension for such offenses. So, we follow the written rule, despite the fact that we, the adult, own much of the responsibility for the student’s offense. We set them up to fail and then blame them (and their parents) when they do.
We, in essence, pour gasoline on a fire and then feign outrage and surprise when the fire rages out of control. Owning our part doesn’t excuse the student’s behavior but it does paint a more accurate picture of what actually happened.
In my personal experience, suspension for defiance and/or profanity just doesn’t make sense. It frequently forces out the students who most need to spend their days in a structured academic setting where there is love, stability and a meal.
Putting aside my own personal anecdotes and opinions, the research also tells us that suspension is not only an ineffective strategy for changing behavior but that it is directly linked to the school-to-prison pipeline. So unless we want our schools empty and our prisons full, this is a crisis that needs our attention. Now.
Because, as we see in the case of Sandra Bland and thousands of brilliant black and brown students, the consequence of doing nothing and staying silent will bring more tragedy and continued injustice.