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Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Teaching Kids A Lesson

The recent news about gold medallist Gabby Douglas' bullying by fellow gymnasts at her former gym in Virginia reminded me of a story I read this spring.  A Texas kindergarten teacher decided to "teach a lesson" to a 6-year-old accused of bullying his classmates.  She had the entire class of 24 children line up and hit the kindergartner once or twice.  The teacher was fired, but her 'might makes right' lesson has a lot of supporters.  (For another recent example of inappropriate interventions with a kindergartener, see here for the story of Georgia police handcuffing and charging a 6 year old girl after she had a temper tantrum at her school).

No doubt bullying is a real problem, and needs to be addressed by parents and teachers alike.  But responding to it with further violence, particularly violence led by an authority figure, sends all of the wrong messages.  It ignores everything we know about child development and how various kinds of discipline and punishment impact behavior. 

The support for this teacher's actions also reflects on a micro level much of our approach to crimes committed by juveniles.  Our juvenile and criminal justice systems don't adequately take into account the  developmental realities of childhood and adolescence.  For a thoughtful account of how normal teenaged behavior is often criminalized, particularly among youth of color, see Kristin Henning's new article.  The recent trio of Supreme Court cases recognizing the differences between youth and adults in the 8th Amendment context is a positive step in the right direction, and states are reacting with decisions and legislation to limit punishments for youth.  (See here for a post on the juvenile justice blog about California's recent steps in this regard). 

Nonetheless, much juvenile misbehavior continues to be handled in a counterproductive or punitive way,  diminishing both the effectiveness and legitimacy of our legal system.

 

Posted by Cynthia Godsoe on August 28, 2012 at 03:37 PM | Permalink

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Great post. But could you say a bit more about the support the rogue teacher has garnered? Is it from policy makers? Fellow teachers? Parents? Folks commenting on blogposts (the most important constituency of all!)? I don't know if the answer to the question matters much, though I'd guess support from policy makers would reach the heart your worry most directly. But lots of people experience a kind of visceral jolt when a bully gets his / her comeuppance. Remember the reaction to this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEqniEvNcnk? (Please ignore the unflattering title.) Can that jolt be filtered out of us? Out of policy decisions? Should it?

Posted by: SparkleMotion | Aug 28, 2012 4:55:54 PM

You raise great points. The main support I saw was from parents and others commenting online. However, one of the teachers involved--the more junior one who merely observed rather than organized the class hitting--is being allowed back to teach after some "training." I question whether such poor judgment can be rectified with any training.

I agree that we often have a viscerally positive reaction to a bully getting a taste of his/her own medicine. But I think we as a society have to try to overcome this punitive instinct, particularly when involving kids (and the one here was only 6!)

Posted by: Cynthia Godsoe | Aug 29, 2012 3:00:25 PM

I agree on all counts, and I'm horrified to think that the other teacher / silent enabler / passive cheerleader is back in the classroom unmonitored. Yikes. Wonder what that training involved . . . .

In any case, I imagine that a significant difference between the video and the story you relay concerns age and authority. The targeted kid in the video was -- or at least seemed to be -- about the same age as the putative bully. He didn't seem to occupy any position of authority, either -- and, if anything, seemed somehow (sadly) lower in the school's informal but powerful pecking order. But all those measures, your story is decidedly different and worse. The teacher is older, not the immediate victim of the supposed bullying, and a person of authority at the school. Comeuppance comes in different flavors, I guess. Might be hard not to feel a twinge of satisfaction when the bullied 13 year old pushes back. But it shouldn't be so hard to cringe when the older, bigger authority figure starts pushing -- or at least ordering the pushes.

Posted by: SparkleMotion | Aug 29, 2012 3:16:38 PM

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