In April, a 6-year-old African American girl was handcuffed and arrested by police in Milledgeville, Ga., for throwing a major meltdown tantrum at school, flailing and knocking down shelves and books.
Last week, a 13-year-old black girl in Inglewood, Calif., was humiliated in front of her class when her white teacher told her to “sit your nappy-headed self down” to end the child’s backtalk.
So traumatizing young children and playing the dozens on teens now passes for discipline in our classrooms, at least for black children?
According to the Children’s Defense Fund, black children are disproportionately punished in our nation’s schools, with 6,916 black students suspended, 442 given corporal punishment, 434 abused or neglected and 104 arrested daily.
That isn’t exactly a formula for success.
I’m a parent and a grandparent. I get that kids can be exasperating. What parent among us hasn’t at least fantasized about the ultimate punishment that will turn the light bulb on over our children’s heads and make them fall in line and understand the importance of being self-disciplined?
But life doesn’t work that way.
Calling a child out of her name and setting her up so that her equally immature classmates now have something to tease her about – possibly unmercifully – does not teach a young person that he or she should be better behaved. In fact, it may well encourage belligerence, a fight to be accepted for who she is, or a feeling that no matter what she does she’s doomed to name-calling and disrespect. Sitting still and being quiet won’t change that dynamic.
What 6-year-old equates being handcuffed and put into a squad car with a warning to act nice? She was already upset, lashing out for some issue real or imagined and instead of simply making sure no one near her would be hurt while she wore herself out, school officials thought the correct answer was to call the police and have her arrested.
It isn’t that the children’s behavior didn’t merit punishment; it’s just that the consequences were administered in such a way that the teaching moment was lost.
“Children are going to periodically act out and misbehave, whether at home or school or out in public. Extreme reactions like handcuffing a child do nothing to address the situation around the child’s meltdown, and run the danger of turning a routine challenge into a much more serious problem,” said Stacey Patton, an author and founder of Spare the Kids, a blog site that gives adults alternatives to corporal punishment.
The issue is personal for Patton, whose book, “Mean Old Yesterday,” followed her path through abandonment, adoption and foster homes to become an accomplished journalist, writer and scholar. Last year, she received her Ph.D in African American history from Rutgers University.
“I’m really trying to change the conversation,” Patton told me last year when she started the site. “I don’t argue. I find African Americans who don’t believe in hitting children, who don’t believe in tearing children down. I find examples of kids who turned out okay (without spanking). “
While the blog was started to help parents, the mission extends to all adults who are responsible for the welfare of children.
It certainly sounds as if it could help teachers and administrators, many of whom are overworked, underpaid and often at their wits’ end.
While America’s classrooms may not resemble “Happy Days” anymore, neither should faculty and administrators feel a need to resort to “Scared Straight” tactics to bring students in line, trashing them and introducing them to the police as if they were criminals.
Teacher training should include alternatives to desperate tactics, alternatives that can model for students appropriate responses to difficult situations.
Now that would be a real teaching moment.