Experts discuss how to handle defiant high school students

In this image taken from video, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott speaks during a press conference in Columbia, S.C., Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2015. Lott suspended Ben Fields, a senior deputy with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, without pay after a video showed Fields forcibly removing a student who refused to leave her high school math class at Spring Valley High School. (AP Photo/Alex Sanz)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — How should adults respond when a teenager defies her teacher?

Disturbing videos showing a school resource officer flipping a girl from her desk and tossing her across the floor this week raised tough questions.

WHEN SHOULD OFFICERS INTERVENE?

Police officers are commonly brought into public schools nowadays to maintain safety and deter illegal behavior. But the School Resource Officers’ Association says school districts should first agree not to involve officers in classroom discipline.

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department has a “memorandum of understanding” delineating when officers should be involved, but the district has declined to make it public, so it’s not clear whether Senior Deputy Ben Fields was asked to cross a line at Spring Valley High School.

Sheriff Leon Lott, who fired Fields after seeing the videos, told The Associated Press on Thursday that his deputy should not have been summoned in this case.

“It would be totally different if she were threatening the safety and security of the classroom,” Lott said, “but she was just exhibiting defiant behavior and being disrespectful to the teacher.”

“The role of an SRO is not a disciplinarian. We’re there to keep the peace and make sure people don’t break laws,” Lott added.

WHAT ELSE CAN EDUCATORS DO?

The girl broke a school rule by using her cellphone in class, but the teacher could have spoken to her quietly, even when she refused to surrender it, rather than delay the lesson for everyone else, said Geoff Alpert, a University of South Carolina professor and expert on police violence.

Lott suggested another possibility: “Completely ignore her. She was the one who was suffering.”

Delaying consequences can be effective, said Larry Thompson, a former Kansas teacher who consults with schools via his “Responsibility-Centered Discipline” program.

“Time often helps the brain get out of the fight mode,” Thompson said. “The old model of classroom management does not fit the new model of what our kids need.”

Even when the girl refused to leave her seat, Alpert wonders, “Why didn’t they call a school counselor? She’s not doing anything to hurt anyone. She’s just being disruptive.”

Attorney Todd Rutherford questions why the deputy was “brought into a classroom to deal with a student who was sitting quietly, simply not wanting to leave class.” He represents both the girl in question as well as another student who challenged her treatment. Both are charged with “disturbing schools,” a misdemeanor publishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

WHAT ELSE MIGHT THE OFFICER HAVE DONE?

Touching a student should always be an officer’s last resort, Thompson said. “Physical contact is the very last piece that we ever want to have to do.”

Removing other students from the room is something both Alpert and the sheriff suggested, but Alpert said it could cause other problems.

“That gives her power in front of all of her friends,” Alpert said. “It’s a horrible message. Worse than that, what are you going to do to, leave that cop and the little girl in the room alone?”

Physically confronting her was “probably avoidable” said Pete Strom, a former U.S. Attorney in South Carolina. “When he saw that she was not going to react, is there another way to do this? Could you get another resource officer in? Could you just let the thing de-escalate? Wait until she’s after class instead of getting everybody into this confrontation?”

The officer had “so many options available,” Rutherford said. “The first is to say, ‘She’s not bothering anybody.’ The second’s to say, ‘Ma’am, are you going to sit quietly and listen?’ and she says yes. The third one is, if she absolutely refused to get up and she’s causing a problem and he wants to get her up, there are pressure points, grabbing her under her arm, wrist lock, there are a number of things that can be done, none of which include telling the student next to her to move so he can flip her desk over, slam her and toss her across the room.”

SHOULD THE LAW CHANGE?

Sheriff Lott believes society should re-evaluate the role of police in schools, because officers are there to enforce laws, and one of them criminalizes classroom misbehavior.

“We have a bad law in South Carolina called “disturbing schools,” Lott said. “If an administrator or teacher did ask the officer to intervene, most likely the officer is going to do it. Generally, they’re going to do what they’ve been asked to do because they’ve been placed in the school.”

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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