Spring Valley High School: Children With Behavioral Problems Are Not Criminals

Set the scene at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina. A Black female student has been “disruptive” in class, and in response, Mr. Long—a long-time teacher at the high school—tells her to remove herself to the disciplinary office. She ignores him. An administrator then calls security to have her escorted out the classroom. Cue Officer Ben Fields, who gives her a firm ultimatum, “Are you going to go or am I going to have to make you go?” The girl then ignores him and in response, Fields gets an arm around her neck and she pushes against his grip before the force of it all sends the desk to the ground with her in it. As soon as she hits the floor, Fields rips the girl from her desk, tosses her across the floor then chases her rolling body, hovering over her to put her hands in cuffs. Some students have caught the encounter on video-cam and upload it for the masses to see.

During an era where camera phones have amplified the already long history of police brutality against persons of color, the treatment of black children is both rampant and unchecked. Still, there’s always that seed of doubt sewn into our core, that a black child cannot be innocent. The reactions to the Spring Valley incident demonstrated our trains of thought clearly. What little facts came to light revealed a girl with a well-documented anger problem who had a sour relationship with the officer as well as the administration. That’s more than enough to make an apologist casserole. Add a base layer of “She should have cooperated,” and a little bit of the Don Lemon “We don’t know the entire story!” sauce. Sprinkle on some hearty “she looked like she was fighting back” cheese and here we are again, being fed this narrative that a black child with an “attitude problem” must be handled as a threat. It permeates much further than the police mindset. This form of pedagogy has infused itself into our entire educational system.

I have taught English at several colleges and each handled their student body very differently. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago placed an emphasis on sympathy towards those who did not display neurotypical behavior. “This is an art school,” our boss said. “All these creative minds! Sensitive!” But when I moved down South and scored a gig at a university whose student body is predominately African-American? I was immediately handed the number to security and told by countless peers, “Don’t be afraid to use it.”

This initially may sound cruel, but know that in many ways it feels like an instructor’s only choice. We have a limited time with students and are under pressure by the administration to pass a certain amount of students so the school can look good on paper. Now add on the students themselves and hear the bomb in your psyche countdown. The first time I dealt with a class of damn near 50 underprivileged students with behavioral problems, I drove home, grabbed a bottle of wine with one hand, my dog with the other, slipped into bed, and did not come out for the rest of the night. I knew I was in over my head and no, I don’t mean, “slightly overwhelmed.” I’m talking about dealing with 50 temperamental students who I literally could not communicate with.

I’m qualified to teach English because I have a masters in it, but what should have been asked was if I had the tools to manage outburst after outburst, each having to do with some show of chest beating and pride. If I knew how to teach 18-year-olds the basic requirements of being a student like showing up to class and taking notes, or if I knew how to prevent students from hopping on their phones in some brazen display of importance and only be invigorated if told to get off. How about dealing with that one student who kept bringing three or four friends to class? They sat right in the front row, shared cell phones and tossed their heads back hollering all through lecture. I kicked them out every day for several days straight until one of them staged a coup, and they all left, taking several of my students with them. I wasn’t the only instructor who suffered. Every friend I’d made at work parroted the same rhetoric: Save the ones you can. Don’t be afraid to kick them out. Don’t be afraid to call security.

A semester in, I was 20 pounds heavier and so mentally removed from my job that I could kick my little “monster-wolf-children” out of class without a second thought. Then one day, I was kneeling down next to a young white instructor, who sat outside her lecture room crying after her entire class had yelled at her for “starting class early,” and I caught myself repeating everything I’d been taught: Don’t be afraid to call security. I call that the rock bottom of many rock bottoms. The day I suggested calling security on loud black children with attitude problems was the day I knew I had somehow allowed myself to fall into the hands of white supremacy. Am I being too hard on myself? Mind you, I am teaching at the college level. What the heck were these students doing in high school? Grade school? Pre-school? But this is a societal problem, and as much of my responsibility as yours.

Why do we treat kids with behavioral problems as criminals, when the truth is they should be treated as aneurotypical? That’s not to say that underprivileged students are mentally impaired, but they are—at the very least—socially impaired. They are—at the very least—not trained to function within society norms. You may take that for granted, but you were very likely trained from conception to function within this society. In fact, I’d argue that many of our instincts would get us eaten alive in the neighborhoods many of my students come from, as they’ve adjusted and learned to cope just to survive their environments. It’s unfair that we continuously punish them for it.

Calling the cops on black children with behavioral problems will never-ever-ever be productive, but declaring a bunch of black children with behavioral problems “impaired” and tossing them on medication will not work either. Instead, we have to become the Anne Sullivan to each Helen Keller. The educational system in itself has to serve as a form of rehabilitation from the disparities that systemic racism and classism has created.

To work in an underprivileged school requires much more than instructors having a gross amount of knowledge in their given subject. Classes need to be smaller or at least have more than one instructor in them, and every instructor should not be allowed to even step foot into one of these classrooms without proper training that should most definitely include the psychology, racial dynamics, and thorough understanding of where these students are coming from and what gaps we have to fill. Will this solve all our problems? No, but it’s a start.

Carol H. Hood is a writer and professor who lives in about 3 different states while working on her novel, The Misadventures of Tip and JB Turner and her graphic novel, American Witch. Follow her snark shark ways at @carolhenny.