School Discipline Reconsidered: TC’s Marla Brassard Reflects on the Columbia, South Carolina Incident
The recent incident in which a black, female student in Columbia, South Carolina, was thrown to the floor and arrested by a white school security officer – and the video of it that went viral and made national headlines – have renewed the intensity of national conversations about race and the “Black Lives Matter” movement. The incident has also called into question the role of school security officers and school discipline in general.
Here, Marla Brassard, Professor of Psychology and Education and Coordinator of the School Psychology program in TC’s Department of Health and Behavior Studies and an expert on physical and psychological abuse of adolescents, weighs in:
Q. What was your reaction to the video?
A. I think it represents many problems we are having in some schools. There was a disproportionate use of violent force that was totally uncalled for. I did think there was a strong racial element. Based on my experience, it’s hard to imagine that this would have happened to a white or Asian girl.
I think this incident reflects a number of very problematic trends in our society. First there is the issue of the availability of guns, and a resultant increase in fears about safety. In the 1980s and 1990’s we had a big rise in gang warfare and juvenile violence. I explored this in my own research, and found that suspended urban kids were taking the risk of bringing weapons to schools because they were scared. It was more important to protect themselves than face suspension if they were caught with a weapon by school authorities. They did not want guns or knives at school and recommended that they be allowed to put weapons in a locker before entering the building (the administration was not open to this). Urban schools began installing metal detectors to find weapons and bringing police into the schools to maintain order and prevent or respond to drive-by shootings. Then we had Columbine in 1999 and the explosion in school shootings that continues to this day. Police are now in schools to protect staff and students from shooters. Police, or school safety officers as they are called, often have no formal training in how to work with young people and no agreed-upon role in the building.
And then there is the additional layer to all this of how you handle technology in schools. What do you do when students are off task and not paying attention because of cell/smart phones?
These are just some of the new challenges that schools are coping with. The rate of change is very great and it’s hard for schools to keep up. It hard to develop sound policies and to find safe and respectful ways of enforcing them.
Q. The incident seems to have occurred when a student refused to put away a cell phone. How should schools handle this type of situation?
A. The issue of phones/smart phones in the classroom is a tricky one. Phones may have a legitimate place when students use them to create videos or music for school-related projects. Some students also need phones to communicate with caregivers before and after school. But phone use in class for purely social purposes distracts students and interferes with their ability to focus on learning. So schools need to set clear and workable guidelines around these issues.
Schools should also have active positive behavior supports in place so students are rewarded for good behavior. Use of these approaches is related to reliable increases in good behavior and the sharp reduction in behavior problems. Schools also need to promote firm but caring and respectful relationships between teachers and students. We know that children accept -- and even welcome -- discipline by teachers they believe care about them, but resist and defy teachers they feel do not respect them. If the girl had refused to stop texting, the teacher could have made the decision to tell her he/she would take it up with her privately after class. After class, the teacher could have told the girl that she really cares about her learning and that the girl's use of the phone is preventing her from learning. She could have asked her why she was refusing to comply and what they could do to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future. If the teacher had a good relationship with the student and expressed genuine concern, the girl might then have shared what was going on that led her to defy the teacher’s command. Or the girl might have refused to share, but the teacher would still have communicated concern and opened the door for future conversations that could have resulted in greater closeness and caring in their relationship. The teacher could then have worked with the administration to set clear guidelines around cell phones in the classroom.
Q. There are now reports that this student’s mother had recently passed away.
A. If the teacher knew that, it’s all the more reason to have talked to the student. He or she should have problem-solved with the girl in a caring way instead of treating her like she was in a prison. I’ve actually worked in a New York State prison with adolescents and staff never treated kids this way. The only time they would take a kid down physically would be if there was a very violent and dangerous situation -- and even then they did their best to use humane restraint. They had an active behavior management program, and children were rewarded for good behavior. Kids quickly learned that life could be very good if you earned “points” for going to class, treating others respectfully, doing well in school, and so forth.
Q. You’ve written extensively about not only the physical effects of violence on adolescents and children, but also the psychological effects. What do you think the effect of this incident on this girl and her classmates is likely to be?
A. The message to the girl in this case is that we really think you’re nothing and we know we can treat you this way. You just aren’t important in any way, so we’re willing to not only be very harsh with you but do it in front of your peers in a way that degrades you, that treats you like a convicted criminal. The message to the other kids is that we’re willing to do this to you, too, if you get out of line. I think that creates a destructive learning environment for children. It makes kids angry and scared, and makes them not want to buy into what they perceive to be the agenda of school professionals. They don’t want to learn from a teacher who is willing to call in someone who treats them that way. They lose respect for the adults and for the mission of the institution.
Q. What is the way forward? Do you think something positive will come out of this incident?
A. We just aren’t collecting national data on certain very significant problems that we have and therefore don’t know enough about them that will allow us to address them in a thoughtful way. Congress won’t allow the CDC [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] to research gun violence [see recent stories on this topic], so we have no coordinated way of looking into police departments and their use of violence.
There has been a huge push towards doing research on the school-to-prison pipeline and all the ways that schools facilitate the incarceration of black young men in particular. In this type of incident, this girl could be charged with resisting arrest, for example, and she could go from just being a kid whose mother died and was having a hard time to someone in the juvenile justice system with a criminal record. There’s a lot of that going on all around the country. Look at the early suspension issue and preschool exclusion in early childhood. It’s basically black boys getting evicted from preschool programs. You can get off to an early start on a deviant track, and normal behavior can end up moving in a criminal direction quickly. This is not something that typically happens to white and Asian kids. We need better information on this, we need to take a deeper look and figure out how to prevent it. We need more data.
We’re not a country that likes to be thoughtful and reflective about race, and we’re a country that has a real problem taking a look at the whole history of violence. Those are not unrelated issues: look at the problem of mass incarceration, which is mainly of minorities. I don’t think there are quick and easy solutions. But because of cell phone videos, we are seeing and talking about incidents like the one that happened to this girl. We are forced to look at how things really are. We are having a national conversation about it. This is a good thing.
Read a profile of Marla Brassard in TC Today magazine. The above interview with Brassard was conducted by Ellen Livingston.
Published Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015