The Girl Thrown Across the Classroom

The Girl Thrown Across the Classroom

My blog post WHAT DO TEACHERS REALLY DO? has consistently been one of the most read posts on Boomer Highway. Why? Because many people don’t really know what teachers do or they are teachers themselves and want to know what another teacher thinks about her role in teaching children. And I want to emphasize the word children. Yes, I know teens can be unruly, can say nasty things, can sometimes bring weapons into a school. I’ve lived that. Not in 2015, but in the 1970s. More later.

But I am standing on the side of a recent argument to say—no policeman or guard or teacher or principal has the right to throw a child across the room—unless that adult’s very life is in danger. And certainly not over a cell phone.

Resulting injuries: ABC news reported: The 16-year-old has a hard cast on her arm extending to her thumb after going to the hospital Monday night…She also is complaining of neck and back injuries, and psychological injuries. 

I don’t care if she was five or seventeen, she’s not an adult. Yes, she was being intractable, but by the time the police officer had been called to the room, the cell phone had been put away. And even if it had not, there’s a lot more working in the life of that sixteen-year-old girl that deserves to be figured out. Sorry, but in the context of teaching THAT HAS ALWAYS BEEN THE CASE. You hope that you can walk into the classroom, give your lecture or test or assignment or start a rousing discussion and everything will be great. But that’s not reality, ever. Not in 1970 and not now.

I taught at Bloom Township High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois. My school was a microcosm in the early 70s—Italian Americans, African Americans, whites from the south moving up to Chicago for better jobs, children of families whose presence in the suburb for years gave them ownership. Result: problems—riots, fights, rule-breaking, school closures for safety reasons. A policeman in the hallways (yes, this was unfortunate but no student got thrown across a room). Staggered scheduling to avoid having too many students in the building at one time.

And what did we teachers do?  We worked, we taught, we followed all the changes and we did everything we could to help our students. Everyone of them:

  • the girl in Humanities that told me right out in class that when my husband traveled he was having affairs—interesting way to get out of talking about THE SCARLET LETTER.
  • the boy who came to my classroom every morning and flirted with me in a joking way, but I was only 23 and he was 17.
  • the 9th period coalition whose goal was to break me down in front of the class so that they wouldn’t have to work. They criticized everything I said, questioned everything I tried to teach them for weeks.  I did break down. But the next day I was right back at it. In the end, they apologized.
  • the kids coming to school sick, unfed, unclean, angry; kids sleeping all through class; kids telling you to f-yourself;
  • the kids who needed love as well as education, who needed someone to stand up for them and give them a chance to get on in the world. (Read this post about a teen’s attitude toward sex)

I think a few things are operating in this recent situation in a South Carolina school where a sixteen-year-old girl was thrown across the room. And they frighten me. When I was teaching, certainly the cell phone did not exist. (I remember in grade school an old friend of mine freaked out his teacher by holding a cardboard box to his ear, pretending it was a transistor radio.) Kids do that stuff. They try to throw you off your routine so they don’t have to WORK. But you can’t freak out. You have to maintain your ground.

Rules exist to provide a teaching atmosphere. Today, put your cell phones away. When I taught, it might have been: taking a bag of chips away; breaking up a tussle in the back of the room; waking up a student—if they can’t stay awake send them to the nurse’s office; and yes if they come at you with some scary bravado, you have to do your best to stand your ground. During a riot a student came at me with a lead pipe—but I knew the student’s name and as soon as I used it, his affect changed—and I was fortunate that another teacher was coming through the classroom door. (If there’s a gun, you are out of luck. But I would never, ever teach in a school that allowed teachers to be armed. I’d rather get a job at Target than live with that.)

And I am sure the ability to NAME the student is the same today as it was then—naming starts the process of settling them down. Anonymity is the key to breaking the law. When that goes away, often the behavior changes. Oh, the anger might still be there, but the situation usually opens up to less threatening behaviors.

The teacher in the South Carolina case probably should have ignored the phone after the first request was made. And it is unfortunate that the student was ordered to leave the room. Was she being sent to the dean’s office, a counselor, the principal? Would this harm her standing in school, make her family really angry? Yes, having her leave would have relieved the overall tension in the classroom, but what the teacher did simply escalated it. What really puzzles me is that this event occurred in October when a sense of comradery should already be part of the classroom atmosphere—especially today when many teaching manuals support students working on projects together.

The climate of that classroom says a lot about what happened. If this student felt isolated and ignored, that would fuel her refusal to comply. Does the teacher need to re-examine her teaching protocols? Is the teacher burned out and can no longer deal with such episodes? Another female student came to the girl’s aid and she too was arrested. Really? And were the rest of the students in the classroom just entertained by what was going on? I think they might have quietly been terrified.

It all factors in and says much more about the incident than this comment in THE WEEK: David French in the National Review: I’ve watched the video several times, and ‘I keep coming to the same conclusion: This is what happens when a person resists a lawful order from a police offer to move.’ The student could have gotten up when the teacher demanded that she leave, or when the school’s administrator made the same demand. Instead she tried to ‘commandeer the classroom indefinitely’ giving Fields no option but to use physical force to remove her.”

Wrong on so many levels. I don’t know how old David French is, but apparently he can’t reach back to his teen years and feel that frightened, heart-pounding feeling when you get yourself into a tight spot. This was no preplanned sit-in. Maybe this student had a history of non-compliance and that’s why the teacher kept going up the line. But certainly a cop wasn’t needed. Wait until the bell rings and the class is over. Talk to her. Try to get her to the counselor’s office—if one still exists. This is a kid we are dealing with.

Teachers often have stressful jobs. I know nothing about this teacher and probably never will. But I am hoping beyond hope that his or her teaching methods begin to include building an atmosphere in the classroom that is open to LEARNING. Not open to the clashes and conflicts that we see online every day, hear on the news every day, often feel when we are out in the world. You can’t LEARN if you feel you are in the middle of a battlefield.

The tension and struggles of the world, of governments, of families—have now infected our student population too. Policemen regularly walk the halls of schools. Guns get into schools. Teachers fight with school boards and administration more than ever. So what are we teaching our children as these changes take place?

That life is about bullying, conflict, division, anger—and being intractable. When it should be about communication, accepting the excitement of differences, learning to work together.

The student thrown across the room should become a symbol for all that has to change in schools. I think schools were created to be a place of learning, not another battleground where someone is so focused on winning that a child is eventually harmed.


The Girl Thrown Across the Classroom


6 thoughts on “The Girl Thrown Across the Classroom

    • Thanks, Carol. I agree. I know I wouldn’t want my child either seeing that happen or having it happen to him or her. Take care, Beth

  1. Hi, Elizebath,

    It was wrong for David French to use the excessive force on the kid.
    I had been substitute teacher before. The kids, were out of control, prevents teachers to form good environments to teach.

    The incorporated attitude of any student is originated from there is no respect to authority in the student’s heart. To nurture the respect altitude, it must come from parents and home.
    Hope this kind of incident will not happen anymore.

    Stella Chiu

    • Yes, students bring a lot from the home, but sometimes it is not enough and teachers MUST give what they can to the student who is lacking help at home. David French is a columnist, it was Ben Field a policeman who threw the girl. Thanks for your comment.

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