Power Struggles in the Classroom Make Everyone A Loser

November 20, 2015
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Recently the viral video of a school resource officer in South Carolina overturning the desk of a female student has created a lot of discussion about school disciplinary procedures. How should adults respond to a child who isn’t compliant with the rules in a setting like public school? If this is the question we’re asking, it’s the wrong one.The right question is:

How did it get to that point in the first place?

In the video, a uniformed police officer comes to a classroom where a student is refusing to comply with the rules. To the best of my knowledge, there was no previous relationship between this child and the officer. In these situations, officers operate under the assumption that merely showing up in an official capacity with the uniform and other physical trappings of their position on display is enough to motivate a student to be compliant. That’s why they wear a uniform. Police officers can’t know everyone in their sphere of responsibility personally, so the symbol of the uniform communicates who officers are and what role they play.

But communication requires two parties, a sender and a receiver. Miscommunication occurs when the message sent by the communicator isn’t received as intended.

What happens when the message sent by the uniform is not a message of trust and protection but instead is seen as clear signal of confrontation, escalation and almost certain injustice? In this case, the receiver became resentful and even more resistant to the message — and the sender got frustrated because he counted on his chosen communication to deliver his intended message.

When that doesn’t work, the communicator is now in a real bind.

The communicator can retreat and regroup or double down by amplifying the message. In most situations, humans will simply repeat their message and amplify it by speaking louder or slower. In this case, “speaking louder” meant showing more overtly what the uniform had already communicated by attempting to force the student to get up from her desk and leave with the officer. Now we have the makings of a classic power struggle — the worst possible product of a miscommunication.

In the mind of the police officer, backing down would seem to be a show of weakness, encourage further bad behavior by the student and weaken the position of the officer in future interactions with other students.

In the mind of the student, what is there to lose by resisting?

This child has already forfeited the benefit of learning in that class by engaging in highly disruptive behavior. At this point, the child has no real reason to cooperate — and something to lose by giving in and backing down. She might lose the “respect” of her peers and she would certainly lose the spotlight that’s shining brightly on her at that moment. The student is “holding court” in this scenario — acting as the center of attention, with everyone else, including the teacher, other students and the resource officers, reacting to her. The entire incident devolved into a contest of who has more to lose, and that equation is out of balance.

One party clearly has much more to lose and has fallen into a trap. The adult has played all of his cards and is still not in control of the situation. In a contest of losers, the one with the most to lose has already lost.

Production Quality?

I wish this video were a fictional Hollywood production and I could yell, “cut!” and start the scene over. If I could rewind just a little, I would want the officer to suggest that the teacher remove the rest of the class from the room and temporarily hold class elsewhere. This would remove the “audience” from the situation, effectively lowering the stakes and the pressure for both the student and the officer. Then I would direct the officer to sit down and speak calmly with the student. In my movie, he would have been trained in de-escalation and functional behavior analysis and he’d try to understand why the student behaved as she did. He would be invested in keeping the situation from escalating and, most importantly, he would have exercised the only real advantage he has over the child — patience.

Patience is the one thing that most youth do not have but all adults should. All the adult has to do is wait her out. Remove the audience, take the pressure off — and wait. Eventually she would get hungry or need to go to the bathroom or just get terribly bored without an audience to entertain. Then voila! The situation is over and nobody gets hurt or fired or put in jail. Appropriate consequences are meted out afterward and life goes on.

Far Reaching Consequences

If I could rewind the scene a little more and start over I would have the officer not be an officer at all. I would have him be an assistant teacher who knows the students and interacts with them in a variety of situations so that he has an actual relationship with them. He would know them so well that he could detect the subtle cues of behavioral triggers and interpersonal struggles that are the precursors of outrageous and disruptive behavior. He could talk to them before things got out of control and guide the student to make good choices that are critical in the development of self-control.

Marginalized Populations

Randi Weingarten discussed such consequences to the “scene” in South Carolina.

The zero-tolerance policies in effect over two decades have failed to achieve their intended goal of making schools safer by enforcing tough suspension and expulsion policies. And they have had disturbing unintended consequences — the disproportionate targeting of African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, LGBT students, and students with disabilities or special needs for out-of-school suspension and expulsion.

Unfortunately, we don’t get any second takes in real life. However, we as adults can take control of what appears to be out of control by careful planning and preparation to deal with negative behavior. We must ask ourselves, what will make these situations better? I certainly don’t know all of the facts of this case, but I do know that there were no winners in the South Carolina incident. Everybody lost.


Mark Claypool is the Founder, President and CEO of ChanceLight Behavioral Health & Education. Claypool recently wrote We’re In This Together.