Choking Students Out of School is Never Acceptable

Brutality does not teach accountability, on camera or off

NEW ORLEANS — Only people who believe that children are uneducable or not even children would slam, choke, jail and expel their non-compliance. When you believe all children can learn, you search for lessons that incite changes in thought processes and behaviors.

This national difference of opinion has drawn attention, and New Orleans is no exception. Last week, a parent told the Times Picayune she filed a complaint with the state Education Department after viewing a recording of Wilfred Wright, KIPP New Orleans Leadership Academy’s dean of students, putting her daughter in a chokehold and dragging her down the street. A school incident report says a staff member, who it would not identify, was breaking up a fight between two girls. The parent doesn’t have a copy of the video, but a screenshot of the video shows a staffer with his arm around a girl’s neck. The staffer was put on leave pending an investigation.

Let’s be clear. Slamming and choking students does not teach them how to be accountable; it teaches them how to slam and choke. But as this case unfolds, there will undoubtedly be people who will blame the student and her behaviors for the choking. That’s because videos that often corroborate students’ accounts of inappropriate restraints are often used to shame student victims in other situations.

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The backlash aimed at the abused student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina is so strong that it partially helped old video regain traction. In this years-old video recorded in a Chicago Vocational Career Academy classroom in 2011, a student verbally harasses and physically threatens a substitute teacher while the class laughs wildly. People are posting this and similar videos as evidence why uncontrollable students get the abuse they deserve.

Blaming students for classroom behavior reveals how little regard we have for black children as well as the teaching profession; people literally want black folk to disappear. Noted charter school advocate and leader Eva Moskowitz recently had to defend the use of a “got to go” list in one of her schools. For years, education rivals accused Moskowitz and other charter leaders of counseling or “pushing out” students in the name of creating a school culture of ‘no excuses’ and academic excellence. But harsh disciplinary practices aren’t confined to charter schools. As the South Carolina case shows, traditional schools will even use police tactics to rid themselves of blacks. Nevertheless, people don’t disappear. We can’t expel or slam our way to success.

But schools keep trying. The Council of State Governments Justice Center found disabled students, minority students and LGBT students are disproportionately suspended and expelled from school. What the data won’t show are the abuses that push students out of school without a suspension. It would be understandable if the KIPP student left the school after the choking. Maybe it’s our systems and not the people that are the problems.

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The research consistently shows that “when students are removed from the classroom as a disciplinary measure, the odds increase dramatically that they will repeat a grade, drop out, or become involved in the juvenile justice system.” Just desserts arguments ignore the fact that abusing students isn’t a solution. Slamming a child in front of a class reinforces the idea that students can’t learn or they don’t deserve great teaching.

In response to a piece I wrote for the Hechinger Report titled, Treat students like future teachers – not criminals Joshua Bynum‪ replied:

“If the student would have acted like a student that wanted something out of life then it would have never happened. She was asked time and time again to leave on her own. She refused and struck the officer first, she got everything she asked for and deserved.”

Show me a child who is completely compliant, and I’ll show you a child who has been abused. Children and youth rebel, question and seek validation. Great teachers teach with those conditions. But many Americans really don’t believe black children can learn. In black schools, brutalizing students is seen as an acceptable means to redirect behavior. Consequently, we see more security in blacker schools regardless of the behaviors in them.

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Teaching is undoubtedly one of the hardest jobs in the country. The videos that don’t go viral are those that would show an effective teacher delivering rigorous lessons that have students challenging themselves and others to learn. Undoubtedly, there are teachers in every school who perform better than others. However, the shortage of effective teachers provides entrée for people who have no business near a child. Worse, it gives license for police to enter the building because ineffective teachers will lean on police authority because they can’t demand it through lessons and teaching.

‪Raymond Pleasant‪ wrote on the same Facebook thread:

“Well I’m Black, and I’m a teacher, so I understand everything! I cannot speak for other teachers, but I treat students with respect as long as I am treated with respect! Students have an issue with responding with yes and no instead of yeah and naw! More than a few have called me strict for a simple common courtesy! I have been cursed out on more occasions than I can count! I am tired of getting blamed because your child had a bad day and I am supposed to take their shit! But, if I have a bad day, so what, I’m an adult, deal with it! I did what I was supposed to do because my parents would have killed me for disrespecting their name, we need more men involved in their children’s lives, that’s the issue!!!

Teachers blaming students’ behaviors for teachers’ inappropriate responses ultimately hurt the profession. Clearly, factors that influence children’s behavior often require different techniques, resources and in some cases additional teachers, but they should never require chokeholds. We know that zero-tolerance policies are destroying the lives of black children. When teachers blame students, they remove the power they are supposed to have. Teachers teach. Police jail. Sometimes as in the case with Eric Garner, police kill for non-violent offenses. Unfortunately, educators are giving their power to police officers (when it comes to black children).

Let’s get real; a chokehold would never be applied to a white child in a private school under any situation. Our disregard of black life fuels the backlashes against children. Let’s hope the investigation of the KIPP school doesn’t lead to a private and public shaming like that of Spring Valley.

It’s just sad that the public’s response to assaulted children is almost as violent as the original offense.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).