What the Spring Valley confrontation teaches us about school discipline

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by Sabrina Holcomb

The video of a school resource officer’s violent takedown of a 16-year-old girl sitting at her desk has ignited new concern around school discipline policies that criminalize nonviolent behavior, particularly the conduct of students of color.

The video was a stark reminder that the statistics and stories we hear about student suspension and arrest rates are about real children.

Multiple factors contributed to the escalation of this incident from a cell phone infraction (the student pulled out her phone in class) into a national controversy about discipline, race, and the societal factors that cause some students—and adults—to act out.

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Everyone agrees, however, that clearly defined roles, guidance, and training for school-based security personnel and staff can go a long way toward de-escalating emotionally fraught situations – and would benefit both students and adults alike.

The fallout from the video has given new urgency to advocates working to change the culture and policies that are pushing an unprecedented number of students, especially ethnic minorities, out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system.

Girls of color, particularly black girls like the student in the video, are disproportionately vulnerable to disciplinary intervention. One Department of Education study found that black girls in New York City are expelled 53 times more and suspended 10 times more than their white counterparts.

If you don’t live in a state that’s changed its legislation in response to this trend, chances are you will. The efforts of a coalition of concerned educators, organizations, and community activists have convinced a growing number of states and school districts to overhaul their school discipline laws and conduct codes in an effort to keep more kids in school.

In 2016, Illinois will launch a bill that addresses racial disparities in suspensions and expulsions. And last year, California became the first state to pass a law limiting the use of “willful defiance” as a reason to expel or suspend students.

California school security officer and NEA member Victor Marquez thinks that the changes are great, for the most part.

Students committing cell phone infractions are a daily occurrence that Marquez handles with professionalism and affection for the students he protects.

Last month, Marquez was called to a classroom to deal with a California student who refused to surrender her phone to a substitute teacher. When the teacher tried to grab the phone, the student cursed at her.

“To you and me, a phone is just a phone, says Marquez. “To these kids, their cell phone is their life. When you take their phone, it’s like a part of them is missing.”

Marquez’ great relationship with the students, and the techniques he’d been trained to use, helped him and a colleague de-escalate the situation. The girl gave the phone to Marquez and later apologized to the teacher for her behavior and language.

A few years ago, before California’s discipline policies changed, this student would have been suspended, says Marquez. Today, she’s in class.

Help keep more kids in the classroom by advocating for positive discipline policies. Take NEA’s pledge to shut down the school-to-prison pipeline.

Reader Comments

  1. I do not agree with how you are making the police officer out to be the bad guy here. First,if the girl had done as she was asked and second, didn’t hold on to the desk, the outcome would not have looked so bad. The parents are involved in correcting her behaviors. This girl is in high school and telling the teacher she will do anything she wants and doesn’t care about the education of the other students. If my child was in this class I would be furious that they would have to endure this disrespectful behavior to the detriment of their education. I think you will find parents starting to pull students to be home schooled. It is already happening.

  2. Are you kidding me? Teachers are quitting in droves because of unruly and abusive students! The student was non compliant and she deserved to be removed. She had every reasonable chance to comply with the school rules and she refused. The cop was too rough, but removing her was proper. Restore order to our schools and everyone will feel safer and get their free public education. Remove disruptive students! Take their parents to court too.

  3. The teacher in the room was a sub and may have had no relationship to the students or no rapport. Having been a sub myself, it’s not an easy position to take. The age level of students can be a challenge. Phones should be on off or not brought into a classroom. They are a distraction. As a teacher, my phone is in my car while I work. As far as this whole classroom situation in the news of late…..the rest of the class should have been exited. The administration should have sat with her one on one and just talked to her. By having everyone leave, she had no one to “act out for” or “save face” to. This turned into a power struggle and defiance of authority. It didn’t have to be like that. No one walked away from this feeling good about it.

    On the other hand, if this is a 90 minute class and this occurs in the first 15 minutes. Where is the rest of the class suppose to continue their education without distraction and disruption?

  4. It’s interesting (and predictable) that the NEA would take the stance that the problem is “the culture and policies that are pushing an unprecedented number of students, especially ethnic minorities, out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system.” Rather than supporting educators who have to deal with this behavior on a daily basis, the NEA encourages more legislation and a double standard for students of color? We have enough rules and legislation on the books to address behavior. If we want new teachers to enter this profession, we need to show that they will be supported when they have high expectations and enforce the rules in their classrooms. Instead, it seems the NEA wants lower the standards for behavior and provide no recourse for adults to deal with the behavior of children in their care.

  5. The efforts of a coalition of concerned educators, organizations, and community activists have convinced a growing number of states and school districts to overhaul their school discipline laws and conduct codes in an effort to keep more kids in school.

    The above sentence taken from the article is also why teachers are leaving the profession. Overhauling a discipline law and conduct codes to keep more kids in school is causing more distractions in the classroom because now we are keeping the distraction instead of removing it! Tire of this! Parents… teach your kids how to act in different environments/situations.

  6. The bigger elephant in the room is the presence of a cellular device in what should be a distraction free environment. Infractions due to cell phones are a daily and widespread problem and the penalties so minimal that it’s not worth a teachers time and effort to document it. Yet the evidence is undisputed that distracted learning is no better than distracted driving. Students have also found crafty and creative ways to use these devices to cheat using the built-in camera option. So why are we continuing to permit cell phones in our classrooms? If there was ever a need for a firm national cell phone-free policy, it’s in our schools.

    1. Thank you for submitting your response because I am completely speechless after reading this article! I am convinced that the people that think that “willful defiance” should not be disciplined are obviously the ones that have no recent classroom experience or do not have their own children in the public school system. This way of thinking is why many awesome teachers are leaving the profession.

    2. I agree with the comment that cell phones are a huge distraction in a classroom. Why should one student be allowed to use their phone while the others don’t because they follow the rules? Why is the one student allowed to disrupt the learning of the others? By allowing these students to be defiant and bend the rules, we are not preparing them for the real world. What manager is going to allow their worker to play on their phone while they are supposed to be working? We are sending the wrong message to students of color if we look the other way when they are defiant in the classroom.

  7. We are training kids—particularly children of color, particularly low-income children—to accept constant surveillance, constant security guard/police presence as normal. It’s not. Thank heavens that people are finally waking up to how wrong this is.
    (My nephew is a high-school teacher, he has a “cell-phone jail” box for phones that are used in class—they can be picked up at the end of the day. I understand that it has worked well [but maybe I should suggest that he change the name to “cell-phone detention hall” ].)

    1. No, it’s NOT normal; what’s the matter with these low income children of color? Why have they no respect for the learning environment? They were supposed to learn this in the home.

  8. I agree with most of this article but I also find it interesting that someone took it upon themselves to video the officer’s response but the the student’s defiance which initiated the incident.

  9. The girl’s defiance is typical. Teachers just want to teach. The girl in the video is violating the rights of every other kid. That should be punishable! Today’s parents NEED to step up and get control of their children. NCLB is partially at fault. If teacers were still allowed to make learning fun and hands-on, then kids would want to listen in class. Teachers could then bring out the best in children.

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