School Talk

This isn’t how it’s supposed to be for kids in school…

It was bound to happen that the cloud of excessive force by law enforcement would fall over a community close to my own and in this case, it happened inside a local high school. Yesterday was the day and the state police have already announced that they will be conducting an investigation.

PAWTUCKET, R.I. — State and city police will investigate the “takedown” of a 14-year-old student at Tolman High School by a school resource officer that touched off a protest Thursday morning which culminated in the arrest of eight teenagers and two adults.The joint investigation was announced by Pawtucket Mayor Donald R. Grebien during a 5:30 p.m. news conference at the Cape Verdean American Community Development Center on High Street.

Tolman High School in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was the site of the alleged student ‘crimes’ and what can only be described as the wrong response by the school resource officer.  Twitter was abuzz over this yesterday and I understand why.

After watching the short video, my mind went immediately to the following question: Does this officer even have a relationship with the students? Having worked in a school that looks a lot like Tolman, I’ve seen firsthand that distrust of new and unknown grown ups is often the norm; we can either accept and honor that reality and make progress for kids or we can continue to ignore it and find ourselves knee deep in arrests, pepper spray, and students refusing to go to school.

Dashaun Robinson of Providence, RI is an African American student at Rhode Island College who occasionally writes about his personal education experience; he had this to stay in a piece about the complexity of dealing with authority figures.

When dealing with students who come from complex situations at home and contend with racial discrimination looming behind every door, respect is crucial. These students, like me, often have trouble dealing with figures of authority due to the absence of a parent.For better or worse, we see law enforcement as either a form of punishment or mode of constant surveillance. Our impressionable minds come to believe that all authority is bad authority because of tough home lives, so it is very important for our teachers to handle the idea of respect and authority carefully. It’s not easy, but it is what has made all the difference for me.

People can carry on with the futile mantra that kids just need to listen to what the adults say and follow directions. Or they can do the hard work of building relationships that allow for kids to feel safe to trust.
Having been the “behavior person” at the high school level, I remember the difference in ways kids responded to me before and after they actually knew me. Whereas at first they were often defiant and frustrated with my demands and admonitions because they didn’t even know me, over time, they came to understand that I was on their side and there to support them. A request for them to remove their hat that would totally blow up in September, became a very routine and pleasant interaction by November.
My experience having worked with many boys who could easily have been these two brothers arrested by their School Resource Officer yesterday, I can confidently say that this wasn’t handled in a way that will bring about anything positive for anyone (other than perhaps the conversation we’ve been having since it happened.)
Truth be told, I don’t even understand why the younger brother was arrested. He had obviously lost control but this happens in schools every day for all sorts of reasons. Working to help him get to a place where he is calmer and able to handle his anger and frustration differently is the job of the adults in the building, including the school resource officer (and I’ve seen officers who are highly skilled at this kind of diffusion.) But if the young man doesn’t have any relationship with the officer already, that will never work.
Throwing handcuffs on him certainly isn’t the answer either.
Perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that the role of a resource officer is one of the most important in the building and we need to get a lot better at deciding who they’re going to be and how we’re going to set them and the students they serve up for a positive experience instead of what we saw yesterday.
What do you think?

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