I don’t remember exactly what instigated it, but something had made Cashanda mad. She positioned herself—and her desk—right smack in front of the board. She was defiant. Her physical placement made it impossible to continue my lesson.
I was a second-year teacher. She was a student in special education because of her tendency toward aggression. I told her to move. She refused. I repeated my instruction. She yelled back. She may have cursed.
At that time, I hadn’t developed the tools I now have for de-escalating defiant students, so I used the intercom to call down to the office. I told them I had a student who needed to leave the classroom and go to see the disciplinarian. She was disrupting class and was impeding my ability to teach.
A few moments later, the disciplinarian, principal and an on-campus police officer arrived at my door. Cashanda rolled her eyes, pushed her desk and stormed out of class.
Despite a number of incidents like these, I adored and respected Cashanda as a student. She was quick-witted, observant and visibly self-determined in every way aside from controlling her anger. She was a foster child, switched from house to house numerous times in her 13-year-old life. She had already attended an alternative school and, like a surprisingly large number of my students, already had a probation officer. She wrote great poetry about empowerment and railed against black-on-black crime. She knew about it. She’d lived it.
When the police officer and company showed up at my door, I felt a knot of disappointment. While it’s true that she left the class relatively peacefully, and my class was able to continue, I was frustrated that whatever had made her so angry was being left unresolved. The reason she walked out without a fight was that she couldn’t risk another arrest. Students did routinely get arrested at my old school, especially African-American students.
It’s troubling that we’re treating children in schools so much like adults are treated in prisons. Children are being arrested for misbehaviors that could instead be mediated in the office of a principal, counselor or social worker. Students are being branded with criminal records at a young age. It’s part of the school-to-prison pipeline. When we treat kids as criminals instead of as children who need to be taught how to do better, we are giving up.
I’m glad to now work at a school that handles discipline in a drastically different way. We serve low-income kids from violent neighborhoods. Many come from households where food, electricity and a sense of safety are unreliable. We have a good handful of Cashandas, whose life circumstances have impaired their ability to control their anger. But this school doesn’t choose to employ a police officer on campus, and there isn’t any need for it.
We are firm but fair, and treat our kids as just that: our kids. We believe it is our responsibility to raise them right, to teach them rather than punish them. And the opportunities to do this are everywhere. Each time we have a conversation instead of simply issuing a consequence, we build the capacity to connect with a student in a meaningful way.
The school-to-prison pipeline is certainly systemic, but we can begin to combat it each day with small interactions in our classrooms. It is our duty to do that.
Craven is a middle school English teacher in Louisiana.