Saturday, December 4, 2021

Human Rights

I watched a video yesterday that sickened me as a parent, a lifelong teacher, and as a community member. I’m not going to share it here. It was a video taken by a student of an event at Howard High School. That should be enough information for you to seek it out if you haven’t seen it.

For some it is a video which apparently has the ability to convince you of what you thought already. It reminded me of an old episode of the PBS program “Between the Lions” in which Leona is inspired by a book to make and wear a hat which is red on one side and green on the other. The library erupts in total pandemonium when she walks straight down the middle of the room and an argument breaks out: “her hat is red!”  “No, it’s green!”

Some view the Howard High School video and see a student being punched in the head by an adult while others adults are physically restraining him.

Some see “a punk thug” who is only getting what’s coming to him.

Of course there are also the “wait and see. We don’t know the whole picture,” folks. They believe that knowing more to the story will explain what they are seeing.

I would have more sympathy for the third group if they didn’t use that approach most often in excusing violence against Black and Brown people.

A few thoughts: 

Students who are out of control will require intervention from staff. I get that. No matter what, punching a young person in the head is not an appropriate intervention. We may learn more about this story but that fact doesn’t change. Howard County Schools have rules that govern physical intervention. Punching a student in the head and pulling his hair while he being held down in a prone position violates those rules. We are not seeing best practices at work here.

We have rules like this precisely for situations like this one. We can’t say we have guidelines for crisis situations and then excuse transgressions by saying, “What do you expect? It was a crisis!’

Even in a crisis, even when they have transgressed school policy, students have some basic rights that schools are bound to respect. 

From what I have read online, some Howard County residents don’t believe that to be true. Often it seems they don’t believe it’s true for Black and Brown students. It would be educational to see their response if this were a white student. Or if it were their own child.

In the best and in the worst of times, schools have a responsibility to students. No one is saying that is easy. In fact, the lack of access to counseling, social workers, and other specially trained support staff make it almost impossible on many days. Not because we have so many “bad kids” but because we have students who bring such intense needs to school with them that our communities have yet to prioritize and respond to in a meaningful way. 

More policing and “adding more security” will never solve this in the same way that taking the wrong medication will not cure your illness. It is the wrong approach and doesn’t address the true problem. 

It truly doesn’t matter if you view this video and see a bad kid, or a student in crisis, a “thug”, or someone who is being grievously wronged. It doesn’t matter if you think we just need to find out the whole story. What we see or how we see it does not change the overarching truth:

Schools are bound by law to be responsible for students in their care. Students have certain basic rights that may not be violated. That is true both on a good day and on a bad day. It doesn’t matter if it is a minor scuffle or a full-on crisis. Nor is it acceptable to apply that differently according to the particular student(s) involved.*

This is the big picture. If all students do not have rights- - if those rights can be granted or withheld capriciously or situationally - - then they are not rights at all. 

“Well, if you didn’t want to be punched in the head you should’ve behaved yourself,” is the very same  same morally bankrupt argument we hear when Black people are abused and murdered at the hands of police. Black families are reading these comments and are bearing the burden of grief and fear that their children go to school in a community that tolerates that kind of speech.

That is a heavy burden to bear.

If you can view that video and come away with notions that the adults were having a bad day, or that it was excusable in a crisis situation, I wonder why you don’t also see that something had made it a bad day for the student, and that he, himself was in crisis. Everyone in that video is a human being. To extend one’s protective concept of humanity only to the adults is a dangerous road to go down. 

It reinforces the very behavior that Howard County policy explicitly prohibits. And it dehumanizes the students whose lives we have promised to respect.

*bolded for emphasis. - - jam 

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