Cindi Ross Scoppe

Scoppe: After Spring Valley: Can we find some common ground on school discipline?

TWO KINDS OF traffic flooded into my inbox as the Spring Valley High School video went viral: From state and national organizations came denunciations of the Richland County sheriff’s deputy dumping, tossing and handcuffing a disrespectful student, demands that the deputy be arrested and declarations that his actions were clearly racially motivated. From ordinary South Carolinians came a consistent counter-argument: It’s the student’s fault. And, schools have to take extreme action when students refuse to obey. And, stop sacrificing cops at the altar of political expediency.

And so here we go again: dividing ourselves into opposing camps. The one saving grace, as Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin noted at mid-week, is that the divergent responses don’t all fit the usual patterns: Some black pastors and parents are condemning the student and her parents, while some white law-and-order conservatives are outraged by the deputy’s behavior. Still, far too many people have ready-made reactions to an incident whose surrounding circumstances are not yet fully known and simplistic solutions for a complicated societal problem for which there are no clear solutions.

What if we started with this idea: What happened in that math class on Monday afternoon is not what we want happening in our schools.

Can we all agree on that? And where would we go from there?

In an ideal world, students would obey teachers, at least enough to go to the principal’s office when ordered to do so. They would do this because their parents teach them to behave. Their parents would support the teachers and principals, as was once routine.

But that’s not the world we live in. And there’s no magic wand that can make parents teach their children to respect authority and — except in some pretty extreme circumstances — nothing the government can do to make parents do that.

So what should happen when students refuse to do what teachers tell them to do?

In a guest column I’ve posted today, a USC law school professor makes a strong case that police should never get involved in school discipline. Reading his column forced me to pause and recognize that there are other options besides “let the kids do whatever they want” and “dump them out of their desks, handcuff them and haul them off to jail.”

What if the teacher and assistant principal had dragged the desk, student and all, out of the classroom? Doesn’t that accomplish the goal of getting a disruptive student out of the way so the teacher can teach? It’s certainly not ideal, but it’s about a million times better than what happened. Once I asked myself what could have been done differently, it took about 30 seconds to come up with that idea. In a minute, or two, professionals who are trained to deal with students could probably come up with a dozen better ideas.

Did the professionals not even try to come up with better ideas because they had the crutch of a police officer? Yes, school discipline is a much bigger problem than it used to be, and teachers shouldn’t have to deal with that; but hasn’t that always been the assistant principal’s job?

How often do administrators use that crutch instead of finding a way to deal with problem students themselves? And if the deputy needed to be fired, should the vice principal be disciplined? That’s who made the decision to turn a school discipline matter into a criminal matter.

Stand by your deputy? Frankly, the national firestorm over police brutality is an outgrowth of officials’ inclination to always do that, even in that tiny fraction of cases when police clearly crossed the line. What was refreshing about Sheriff Leon Lott’s response was the balance: My deputy crossed a line, so I’m firing him. But the student crossed a line as well, and while someone who isn’t violent doesn’t deserve to be treated like that, she is responsible for her unacceptable behavior. And, implicitly, school officials bear some responsibility: When you call my deputies, they’re going to act like deputies.

There was a boy in my first-grade class who routinely engaged in screaming fits and refused to do what he was told to do. He was just horribly disruptive. Exasperated teachers often sent him out to the playground to run around and scream so they could teach the rest of us.

James never completely calmed down, but over time he transformed from terror to charming cut-up, class clown. He also started studying. He was elected student council president, and my senior class voted him “most popular.” I’ve lost touch with James, but I’m confident he turned out well: He was one of a dozen classmates who were accepted along with me to the University of North Carolina.

I don’t know what school officials or his parents did to help James turn around, but I know what they didn’t do: They didn’t have him arrested. They didn’t call the police. Because that’s not what was done back then. It shouldn’t be what’s done today.

Ms. Scoppe writes editorials and columns for The State. Reach her at cscoppe@thestate.com or (803) 771-8571 or follow her on Twitter @CindiScoppe.

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