This video that's circulating the internet, the one of the teen girl being ripped out of her desk by a "peace officer" in a classroom, has grabbed me and won't let go. If you haven't seen it, it is a violent interaction between an adult and a teen on a school campus. Which, in every way, is disturbing to me. Some may describe it differently - if you have a strong stomach, watch it yourself and see what you think. (I will not be sharing it here.) Lots of talk has occurred about who the teen girl is, who the officer is, and who was in the right. Honestly, I don't think any of it is relevant. Yes, her history could explain some things; yes, what happened leading up to this could be of interest. But in all seriousness - she is a teen...a child, who was sitting quietly and was forcibly removed from her seat, causing injury. Nothing else really need enter the conversation.
Our culture has a long history of treating children as second class citizens. Whether we like to acknowledge it, we believe children should be quiet and obedient...some may say "respectful", but too often what they actually mean is "obedient". Consider how classrooms are set up, how children are expected to behave within them. Consider how quick we are to anger when children don't "do as they're told". There is still debate over whether or not it is ok to hit a child. Some call it "spanking", but hitting is hitting, folks. Think about all the times we mostly get exasperated and annoyed when children are upset or angry. Would any of this thinking fly if you applied it to your husband, wife, mother, boss, employee?? No? Interesting....
So, as a family therapist, and one who has spent some intensive time working with at-risk children with serious behavior issues - I have been thinking about this video a lot, as well as the conversations that are happening around it. I have been thinking about what I would have done, what my beliefs and professional knowledge would have informed me to do. I've been thinking about why so many people want to justify this officer's actions. Because I absolutely believe this situation could have been resolved peacefully. I know this because I, and the therapists I work with, do it all the time. Not because of any magic of character or secret phenomenon. But because from our experiences we have learned one very simple, very powerful thing: that for our children's sake we CANNOT allow anger to cause us to lose control of ourselves. A child's (including a teen's) brain functioning still has a long ways to go in its development. Executive functioning (problem-solving, impulse control, cause-effect thinking, emotion regulation, etc) is still under development until our mid-twenties. And that's if we've had a stable, safe upbringing. So, at best, a teen's ability to control her impulses and regulate her emotions is under-developed; therefore, if you are the adult in the room with this child, your number one job is staying calm. You have to show her how. Honestly, most of my professional advice for parents comes down to this: do what you have to do to stay in control of yourself, to stay calm. Take a break from the moment, BREATHE, get professional help, call for backup...whatever it takes. Because the moment you lose control of yourself, you've lost the moment.
I think we can all put ourselves in this officer's shoes to a certain extent. She is defiant, the whole class is watching; he is thinking "She WILL leave this classroom if it's the last thing I do." Anger is creeping up and taking hold. But is that really what is important here - unquestioning obedience? Is this teen exiting the classroom actually the thing that matters? Or is modeling to this teen that no matter how defiant she is, the adults will never harm her; and modeling to her that when you are mad, frustrated, livid even, you can still do the right thing - isn't THAT what we want her to take away from this? So the challenge is, and this is absolutely a challenge - it doesn't come easy to any of us. The challenge is: You cannot ask a child to do what you cannot do yourself. This is a common refrain among professionals who work with "tough" children. You cannot ask a child to do what you cannot do yourself. If you can't handle a difficult situation calmly - how can you expect them to?
So, regardless of who said what, or how this moment came to pass; a man responsible for the safety and order of a school campus let a child anger him to such an extent that he lost control of himself and became violent. This was an extraordinary event, one many of us will never experience I hope. However, I do believe there are lessons for every day life in this. Anger is a natural feeling we all experience, it arises for various reasons and no one is so regulated that they avoid anger completely. But, what we DO with anger is a CHOICE we make. No matter what anyone else does, we still get to choose how we respond to them, to life.
It just doesn't matter how disobedient or difficult this girl was being - she still needed to be treated like a human being who was struggling to make a good choice. It doesn't matter how angry the peace officer was, he still needed to find a way to calmly resolve the situation. Because now, this girl not only has physical wounds but emotional as well. Her trust in her school administrators, police officers, and adults in general (if she ever had any) has now been horribly ruptured, possibly irreparably so - and what kind of choices does a teen with no faith in her school, law enforcement, or authority figures make? What kind of adult does she become?
And what's more, when we allow anger to take over, what kind of person do we become?