Do Children Learn Respect for Authority by Physical Force? One (Former) Teacher’s Thoughts on the South Carolina School Incident

corporal punishmentThe videos of the (now former) South Carolina officer manhandling a teenage girl for being “disrespectful and belligerent” were truly disturbing. The words of those supporting the officer’s actions were bewildering, at best. The realization that so much of this support was from parents, teachers, and law enforcement officers saddened me beyond words.

Below are some of the most common sentiments expressed in support of the officer:

  • She deserved it!
  • Kids these days have no respect for authority!
  • She obviously has horrible parents who haven’t taught her how to behave properly!
  • She should’ve just complied and he wouldn’t have been forced to touch her!
  • If that were my kid I’d be thanking the officer and giving her more of the same when she got home.

My stomach turned as I read those and similar statements across the internet and in the media.

Let’s assume for a second that these people are correct…

What if she doesn’t have respect for authority and no one to teach her proper behavior? Is being thrown around a classroom by a cop, while two other adults stand by silently, going to teach her those lessons? Isn’t that the epitome of “do as I say, not as I do” mindset? Is throwing her in jail and potentially sending her careening down a disastrous path the answer? Is that really all we have to offer kids who are already suffering? If their families are indeed failing them, don’t we, as a society, have a responsibility to help them? Wouldn’t all of us benefit in the long run if we helped instead of heaping more hurt and anger upon them?

How did we get to a place where people cheer violence against any child? People love to talk about the sanctity of life, but are often more than willing to throw the kids who need us most by the wayside. If we’re so “pro-life”, shouldn’t that include being “pro-living-and-breathing-children”? No matter how tough or defiant their attitude, they are still children.

I don’t know of anyone on earth who’s learned respect by having it beaten into them (though I’m sure those who would “give her more of the same” would disagree). Children learn best by example. The actions of adults teach children what is expected of them. I wonder what lesson that young girl learned. I wonder how she feels about authority figures now. Was her trust in police – and adults, in general – strengthened?

In my experience with disrespectful, belligerent, and even violent kids (and parents), I’ve found that the worst attitudes and behavior can often be turned around by treating them with respect and dignity – even in the times that they don’t necessarily deserve it. If these kids come from homes where no one is teaching them to respect authority, wouldn’t a better method be to show them that authority figures deserve their respect? To show them that they also deserve respect? Did any of the adults in that South Carolina school bother to ask this child why she was refusing to put her phone away or leave the room?

If you support the officer’s actions you’re surely rolling your eyes about now, telling yourself that I’m just another pansy-ass liberal who has no idea what it’s like to be in a situation like the one the officer was faced with.

You’re partially right. I’m definitely a liberal, but I’m no pansy-ass. More importantly, I’ve experienced situations exactly like the officer faced (we called them school days) as well as some that were potentially life-threatening.

Let me give you the highlights of just one of countless stories from my classroom days…

Baby Gangsters

I was a teacher for 13 years. My first four years were in Title I elementary schools on Houston’s East End. Many of my 4th through 6th grade students were in gangs or being pressed to join. Many of their parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles – even a few grandparents – were gang members. All of them knew gang members and witnessed the effects of gang life on a daily basis.

One 6th grade class in particular was the toughest, most aggressive, out of control group of kids I’d ever met. So bad were they that the staff nicknamed them the Baby Gangsters (BGs). They had no respect for themselves or anyone else. Before Christmas break, they were on their third teacher. The first two had quit due to the stress of trying to maintain order in that classroom. These kids didn’t want to be at school; they wanted to be out in the streets. Since they were forced to be in school, it was common for them to cuss out, intimidate, and threaten teachers and administrators, hoping this behavior would get them suspended, or better yet, expelled. And it worked on all counts.

I taught music that year. I didn’t have a classroom, so I traveled with my music cart to each class. My days with the Baby Gangsters were often scary and always nerve-wracking. They were emboldened by the fact that they’d sent two teachers packing in four short months.

Stepping into that classroom, you never knew who was going to flip out, cuss you out, try to walk out, or fight it out. Needless to say music – or at least the music in our curriculum – wasn’t their favorite. Michael, Row the Boat Ashore wasn’t really their jam. I did eventually get permission from my principal to use some rock and rap, but that’s a story for another day.

One day, Anthony* (13 years old), announced that he’d had enough of my stupid class, and began to walk from the back of the room toward the door. Before he cleared the rows of student desks, I stepped in front of him to block his way. Standing there inches apart, I looked him in the eye and told him in my best teacher voice to sit down.

He puffed up and said, “Fuck you, bitch! Who’s gonna stop me?”

I wasn’t surprised, but I was intimidated. Knowing 24 of his friends were right there didn’t help matters. Given that Anthony was the de facto leader of the BGs, I knew that if he started something, the others would help him finish.

I mustered up my strongest, toughest voice and said, “I am. Sit down and stop cussing. NOW!”

He laughed.

The room fell silent but for the sound of the other kids rustling in their seats in anticipation – and probably to get a better view. My heart was pounding and my hands were shaking. There was a call button on the wall by the door, but scared as I was, I held hope that I could talk Anthony down. Mostly, I knew that I had to maintain control of the situation or I’d never be able to walk back into that classroom again.

Suddenly he reached into his pants pocket. As he did, he yelled, “Get out of my way, bitch!”

I could see that there was something in his pocket. As his hand was coming out of the pocket, I saw a silver object. I had no idea what it was, but I assumed it wasn’t a gift.

Before he could pull his hand completely out of his pocket, I grabbed it just below the wrist, my thumb on the back of his hand, in an attempt to keep his hand and the object inside the pocket.

Looking him in the eye with my best bitch face, I said, “You do NOT want to do this. Trust me.”

Sarcastically, he fired back, “Who’s gonna stop me? You?”

He laughed, as did several others.

I said nothing as we glared at each other for what felt like hours. In reality, it was probably less than a minute. I could hear my heart beating and was sure they could, too, but I couldn’t back down.

As we stood there, our eyes locked, I used my thumb to put pressure between two bones in the back of his hand – not to hurt him, just enough to loosen his grip on the object. Keeping the pressure there, I pulled up to remove his hand from the pocket. As it came out, a small switchblade fell to the floor. He and another student who was sitting nearby quickly reached for the knife. Before they could get it, I managed to step on it. Both stopped and looked up at me, shocked (as was I ) that my foot had gotten there first.

“Sit down, Anthony. We’ll deal with this later.”

He glared at me, and said “Fuck you!”

My foot still on the knife, I said, “You and I will talk after class. Sit down!”

He stood up, glared at me, and went back to his seat. The room was silent as I picked up the knife and walked (backwards) to the front of the room. Thank God their teacher would be returning in 15 minutes.

I scanned the room and asked authoritatively, “Anyone else want to leave?”

A couple of the kids giggled and a few said, “No, Miss.”

Still shaking, I took some deep breaths and said, “OK, good. Where were we?”

I ignored Anthony as he glared at me for the remainder of the class. Finally, the teacher returned. I didn’t tell her what happened, but said I needed to speak with Anthony. Once we were in the hallway I asked him what was going on.

He said, “I don’t want to be here. This place is stupid.”

“Yeah, I get that. But were you planning to stab me in order to get out of here?”

Still puffed up he said, “Maybe.”

“I don’t think you would’ve. I know you’re tough, but you have a good heart. You’re a good person.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Yeah, I think you are. You’re smart…and you’re a leader. Every one of those kids in there looks up to you. They follow your lead – good or bad.”

His attitude softened just a little and there was a faint sign of a smile.

I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “I have to tell the principal what happened, so expect to see him later today.”

“I don’t care. He hates me.”

“No he doesn’t, Anthony. He’s concerned for you and your friends. We all are. You guys are making some really dangerous choices and we’re worried about the consequences.”

“Like taking my knife away? I can get another one easy.”

“If y’all keep making bad choices you’ll have a lot more to lose than a stupid knife. You’re too smart for this.”

He looked at the floor, but said nothing.

I sent him back into his class and asked him to take it easy on his teacher. He nodded and went to his seat.

It would’ve been easier to just throw the kid to the ground and hold him there until someone came and carted him away. Doing that would’ve only turned a bad situation into a violent and traumatizing situation for all of us. These kids already saw violence everywhere, every day. The last thing they needed was another adult showing them that violence is the way to command respect.

Anthony was suspended for 10 days. When he returned to school, he sought me out and apologized.

With tears in his eyes he told me that most of his family were gang members. His older brother was pressuring him to join, but he was reluctant. His brother had given him the knife the morning of our classroom incident and told him it was time to prove himself ready – and he thought he was. After the incident Anthony realized he wasn’t ready, and was worried that he’d eventually be forced to join.

He told me that no adult had ever responded to his bad behavior with anything other than anger. All he’d ever heard was that he was a bad person, a worthless punk, who would end up in jail or dead. He’d never been told that he had a good heart, that he was smart, or that he was a leader. He spent his suspension days thinking about what I’d said and the way I treated him after the incident. He wanted to make changes.

And change he did! His entire countenance was different. Instead of starting fights, he negotiated peaceful endings to his peers’ disputes. The fuck yous became yes ma’ams and no ma’ams. He discovered self-respect which allowed him to respect others. His grades soared, placing him on the Honor Roll for the first time in his life. He found the courage to stand up to his family and stay out of gang life – and encouraged his friends to do the same. That wasn’t easy and initially caused a lot of problems with the family, but in the end, they respected his decision.

His turnaround didn’t end in elementary school, either. When I saw Anthony a few years later he shared that he’d continued to excel in school and reject the gang life that he’d been so close to entering. He thanked me again for showing him there was a different way to live.

I can’t take credit for all the amazing ways his life changed, but I will take credit for showing this formerly belligerent, delinquent child what respect and compassion look like. I sincerely believe that if more adults took this approach rather than heaping more pain, disrespect, and even violence on already struggling children, we’d see more stories like Anthony’s.

There are times when physical force is warranted, but it should be the last resort, not the first. Physical force should only be used when there is a threat of assault or injury. It should not be used because an authority figure is displeased with a child’s attitude or words.

Might doesn’t always make right. In fact, it rarely does.
*Anthony is a pseudonym.



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