Teachers provoked by students

When a black music teacher in Maywood Academy High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District asked a 14-year-old student to leave the classroom because he wasn’t wearing a proper uniform, the boy repeatedly used a racial epithet and threw a basketball at the teacher. The teacher initially walked away but then punched the boy in the face and continued the beating as the insulting persisted.  The teacher was arrested for child abuse (“Teacher arrested after fight with student,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 5).

I’m not at all surprised by what happened. I blame the present situation on the student-rights revolution that began in 1965.  Until then, teachers were expected to act in loco parentis.  But lawyers, backed by philanthropic behemoths, started suing schools for disciplining students.  Since then, disrespect on the part of students has grown.  The present incident is different only in that it involved a teacher who retaliated.  In most cases, teachers are assaulted by students.

I don’t condone what the teacher did.  But he was deliberately provoked by the student.  How much abuse can any teacher be expected to take before lashing out?  Apparently, I’m not alone in this belief.  More than 2,600 people have donated more than $65,000 for his legal defense.  Critics will be quick to argue that there is no excuse whatsoever for a teacher hitting a student, maintaining that it is child abuse.  Would they say that if the student threw the first punch?   What about the student in the present case?  Will he be merely suspended or rightly expelled?

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Goss v. Lopez in 1975 gave all students the right to contest in court any decision made by their teachers.  What we’re seeing now is the predictable outcome of that decision.  As then Justice Lewis Powell correctly said, students who do not learn the necessity of rules will be handicapped for life.

(To post a comment, click on the title of this blog.)



10 Replies to “Teachers provoked by students”

  1. Seems like the teacher’s conduct in this case should be analyzed as possible job misconduct rather than as possible criminal misconduct. This is a close analogy to the many well-publicized cases involving police officers who shoot people (often black men) when, with the application of 20-20 hindsight, it’s clear that the shooting was unwarranted.

    Everyone makes mistakes on the job. Usually, when X makes an on-the-job mistake, X’s conduct is reviewed by X’s employer and the employer imposes discipline/discharge. If Y is harmed (physically or financially) by X’s conduct, Y sues the employer for damages. If supermarket Cashier C makes a mistake and gives Shopper S $10 too little change, no one would suggest that C be arrested and prosecuted for theft. Instead, the employer would probably give C a warning to be more careful and, if C made several such mistakes, the employer would eventually discharge C. And, of course, the supermarket owes S the $10.

    In virtually all the wrongful police shooting cases, the officer’s action in shooting the victim is morally analogous to the cashier giving the shopper the wrong change. The officer made an on-the-job mistake — he did not have any personal animus towards the victim before the confrontation began and his decision to shoot resulted from exercising bad judgment in responding to an on-the-job problem. Certainly, the officer’s bad judgment may have been attributed (at least in part) to emotional stress/anger at the victim. But, such emotional stress/anger would itself be an aspect of the job rather than any pre-confrontation animus towards the victim.

    When society — particularly a govt employer like a police department or school system — employs a police officer or a teacher to perform a job that inherently involves confronting emotionally-charged situations that can reasonably be expected to test a reasonable person’s emotions, society should not subject the employee to criminal sanctions when the employee makes an on-the-job mistake in response to the emotionally-charged confrontation.

    Not saying that the teacher’s conduct here is excusable. The teacher definitely should be disciplined and perhaps discharged — that depends on several “just cause” factors not addressed in the media reports. But, the teacher should not be prosecuted criminally (unless there is reason to believe the teacher felt some animus not related to the job towards the student before the confrontation began).


  2. Labor Lawyer: Unless the teacher in this case has a history of similar misconduct, he should not be charged criminally. Yes, he should have restrained himself, but there is a limit to what any person can be expected to be subjected to before lashing out. What about the school district’s responsibility for not training teachers how to handle such situations? If some districts are training teachers how to use guns, then certainly they also be training teachers how to defuse verbal abuse no matter how vicious it is.


  3. A teacher should NEVER lay a finger on a student. No exceptions. Every classroom I have worked in has had a phone, and some also had a “panic button”.
    If a teacher has had issues before, why are they still employed?
    Every school I worked in MA had two exits(FL only one) and you could have the teacher next door call the office.
    I cannot compare this situation to a police officer. That is over the top.
    I can compare it to that a male should never touch a female. No exceptions.


    1. Why is it over-the-top to analogize a teacher’s over-reaction to a student’s unruly conduct to a police officer’s over-reaction to a citizen’s unruly conduct? The point I’m trying to make is that, in both cases, a human being is being placed in an emotionally-charged situation as a part of the job. He must confront the situation — that’s his job. If he screws up, he should be subject to job discipline/discharge but should not be subject to criminal sanctions (unless the screw-up was motivated by factors unrelated to the job — like a police officer shooting someone who had insulted the officer at a party the night before or had been sleeping with the officer’s wife).


  4. mathcoach2: What is the teacher is attacked by the student? That happens. Should the teacher simply take the beating? Not all classrooms have panic buttons. None of the classrooms where I taught had them. Moreover, some schools use bungalows that are scattered around a sprawling campus. Even if the bungalows had panic buttons, by the time help arrived the teacher could be severely beaten.


  5. Labor Lawyer: I agree with you. There is no intent in what both a teacher and a police officer might do in such cases. Rather than charge them criminally, what about providing them with further training?


    1. Walt — Whether further training is appropriate will turn on the facts of each case. Sometimes the issue is not training but rather the employee’s mental/physical inability to do the job. Police officers and teachers often have incredibly stressful jobs requiring them to routinely deal with unruly/rude/threatening people. Some personality types probably have tremendous difficulty maintaining a detached/rational outlook in such situations. Or, some people who usually can cope with such situations might be temporarily subject to unusually heavy off-the-job stresses that render them vulnerable to over-reacting to the routine stresses on the job. In either case, training would be of limited/no value (other than perhaps dealing-with-stress training). Some people just should not be police officers or teachers (at least, not teachers in certain school environments). For these people, discharge is a reasonable result. From the limited facts reported by the media in this case, it seems likely that the teacher (veteran teacher who is 64 yrs old) is “burned out” and should not return to this type of classroom. But — my overall point here is that the teacher should NOT be subject to criminal prosecution.


  6. Labor Lawyer: Teacher burnout is well documented. Whether the music teacher, who is 64, is suffering from it, I don’t know. But I question if a far younger teacher who is new to the classroom would have handled the situation differently.


  7. To me, it is amazing how the original story has expanded into other situations.
    Let’s return to the second sentence in the column, “The teacher initially walked away but then punched the boy in the face and continued the beating as the insulting persisted”.
    The teacher knew he should walk away and he should have contacted another teacher/administrator for help.
    In every system I worked, we were not allowed to touch a student. If you want to bring in other classroom situations in a different column, that is fine.
    If this situation happened in any school I worked in, the teacher would have been arrested. I do not consider a basketball as a weapon.
    I still maintain that the comparison of a teacher to a police officer is over the top. I have never taught in a school where all teachers have guns, tasers, clubs and a radio system.


  8. mathcoach2: You are assuming that the teacher’s room had a phone or other device to summon help. You also assume that even if it did that help would arrive immediately. I taught in a bungalow on the periphery of the sprawling campus. I have no way of getting help immediately. Yes, I would have tried to defuse the situation differently, but I was not in his situation.


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