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How To: Remove A Defiant Teenager From A Classroom

It seems likely that, by now, everybody who wants to has seen video of Ben Fields endorsing the Incredible Hulk’s approach to crisis management. There are explanations available as to what might have motivated Fields’ decision-making –  Fields is part of a larger problem of unequal student treatment, Fields was wrong to do what he did but not racist because his girlfriend is black, Fields is literally a maniac – but I’ve encountered a fair number of people expressing confusion about what other options Fields had. The thinking seems to go that after asking the student to leave the classroom, a request which had been denied, the only thing left to do was violently ripping the student from her chair, dragging her across the floor, and arresting her.

But good news – there actually is a middle ground between having your polite request denied and violent assault!  So this then is about that: how to remove a defiant student from a classroom. For the sake of conversation, we are going to assume the conditions are as they appear on the video and we are going to assume that the request to leave has been denied.

But Before We Do That

“Who in the hell are you to be writing your advice about any of this?” you might be asking. This is a fair question. I spent three years as a social worker. My clientele were teenagers, mostly boys but occasionally girls. I routinely encountered children uninterested in my alleged authority. I was authorized to perform single and two-person takedowns, also known as restraints, although these were only allowed in situations in which a child was explicitly a danger to themselves or others. Restraints were not a punishment, nor a corrective. Physical contact was the absolute last resort, as it always should be. Make of that what you will.

Step One: Explain The Situation As It Is

Fields was the third person to ask the unnamed student to leave her seat and then the classroom. He was the third person whose request was refused. This is a student whose denial cannot be ignored (thus reinforcing the behavior) but who has not provided a reason for physical contact (she was not a danger to herself or those around her). However, to continue the conflict in front of her peers robs them of their classroom time. This is the point of leverage.

“Ma’am, I understand only that something is going on right now, and while I want to help further, I cannot do so here. This is a classroom where work is done and this situation is currently interrupting that work’s occurrence. This is unfair to the students around you and cannot continue. My role here is to return this classroom to its stated purpose – learning – and I will be doing that, one way or another. I am hopeful that we can work together on this.”

Here it would be hugely helpful to have a teammate with you. One of the most glaring things about the situation in that school is that this student was approach by staffers one at a time, first by a teacher, then by a principal, then by Fields. Each was seemingly alone. At least two of the three people approaching this young woman was a man, potentially further complicating things.

Step Two: Explain What Happens Next

Having clearly explained the situation as it stands, and having again offered the student the opportunity to work together with the adult (thus subtly making a good-faith effort to put both ourselves and the student on the same page), a final offer is made. That offer includes an explanation of the consequences for various responses to the offer.

“You and I will be leaving this classroom together. How we do so is entirely up to you. You may choose to stand, gather your things, and walk out that door with me. From there, we will be going to a predetermined location where you and I can sit down to further discuss your situation. If you would rather speak with somebody else, that can be arranged. You may also choose to continue sitting. If you make that decision, my teammate and I will be picking up your desk and carrying it out of this room. Although I do not want you to leave the classroom in this manner, your refusal to leave on your own unfortunately leaves me no other options. As an aside, should you make the decision to get into a physical conflict with us, we will respond as necessary to protect ourselves and the other students in this room. However, we remind you that what happens next is entirely your decision.”

Nothing about this needs to be said in a menacing fashion. In fact, a steady voice and a calm demeanor is likely to be hugely beneficial, as is a willingness to deliver this message in such a way as to minimize it being heard by those around the student. Although probably impossible, crouching down beside this student – to literally appear physically smaller – is also advisable.

It is necessary to remember that the goal is a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

Step Three: Ask The Student If She Has Made A Decision, Then Follow Through Immediately

If she agrees to leave, great. If not, we should stand at either end of her desk, and ask for somebody to hold the door open. We can again verify her decision, and then, we lift the desk vertically while making every effort to avoid physical contact with her. Because the desk is that kind in which a student can only enter from one side, the open side should be tilted slightly toward the ceiling, thus making it far more difficult for the student to flop out of her chosen predicament.

If at any point we receive a verbal indication that she is willing to leave in a less controversial manner, we allow her to do so. If at any point she makes any attempt to initiate physical contact, we are forced to decide our response immediately. One of the two people holding that desk is the decision-maker of the pair. A quickly stated decision – “Keep moving!” or “Put the desk down!” – and the twosome moves to that response.  The desk should not be put down until it is located in a safer place or the student indicates a willingness to move peacefully or the student escalates the situation.

At no time is any physical contact instigated by the adults. This protects the child from possible injury, it protects the staffers from possible claims, and it minimizes (to whatever degree such a thing a possible) the situation’s awfulness.

Step Four: Properly Intervene

Removed to a safer, more isolated location, it is necessary to perform a basic needs check: food/water, health, warmth. If basic needs are not being met, meet them. And then begin a proper exploration of what it is exactly that was motivating the behavior in that classroom through the proper use of active listening.

Oh, Right, Everything I’ve Written Is Totally Unrealistic

This is the part of this post where it becomes necessary to note the two-part complexity of my proposal.

First, having two employees available for interactions such as the one above is a stretch, and although the school in question does have two officers deployed there, it seems safe to assume that a high school of any size is going to have its officers deployed at various locations at any given time. And this is before we bother thinking about what it is that officers are trained to do. Substantive, meaningful crisis intervention isn’t their bailiwick; authoritarianism is. That any school’s foremost concern is control leads us straight into the second challenge.

Properly intervening in the lives of children simultaneously requires significant investment, in the form of salaries (which aren’t available), in the form of trainings (which are costly), and perhaps most importantly, in the desire to see children (and especially teenagers) as human beings worthy of substantive attention. But that isn’t how we tend to think of teenagers. We tend to think of them as wild animals who need to be controlled and even when that control absolutely goes too far, we make sure to remind ourselves that the teenager probably did something to deserve it.

This was the most popular defense offered up on Fields’ behalf. It was one wherein he wouldn’t have done what he did if only the student had listened to his orders. Yes, he went over the line, went the argument on a thousand different Facebook walls, but it was her fault, and she could have avoided the possibility of being mercilessly throttled if only she had followed orders. It was as if to admit that an adult with power had transgressed against a teenager without power was simply a bridge too far.

About That Good News

Perhaps it is good that there are solutions.  Perhaps it is good that those solutions work.  But unfortunately, they are expensive and unlikely, the latter because of the former. In a world wherein resources for education are already vastly curtailed, coming up with the additional funds necessary to treat students-in-crisis like human beings is almost certainly a no-go, as is shifting funding from one thing to this. There is more enthusiasm for more Ben Fields than there is for more substantive crisis intervention.

So then maybe the good news is that Ben Fields was fired – it is certainly better than the alternative – but he will almost certainly be replaced by the next heavy-handed authoritarian whose goal is order rather than effective intervention. The situation, in other words, is helpless and depressing, perfectly mirroring society’s general disdain for children in general and  teenagers specifically. As it was is how it always will be and so perhaps I was wrong: there is no good news.


[Image: Screen shot of Fields in the classroom, via YouTube.]

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84 thoughts on “How To: Remove A Defiant Teenager From A Classroom

  1. Golf clap. Seriously.

    Were you formally trained in this approach? Did you arrive at it organically? Some combination therein? I have to say that what you offer here is affirming because many of the ideas contained within mirror those I use with my students, particularly the idea of returning agency back to the student with regards to which path they will take while maintaining control over the available options. My children are (much) younger so it differs somewhat, but when possible I also give them the opportunity to propose an alternative. “If you have another way we can solve this problem, I’m all ears.” That isn’t always possible though.

    Ultimately, the idea that responding to someone who is desperately grabbing for control of a situation by taking any and all control away from them seems to lack a fundamental understanding of humanity. And, yes, children and teenagers ARE human.


    • This is much of what I was trained in, mostly because it doing it this way allows the subject to invest themselves into the outcome. When you’re dealing with people who perceive themselves to lack power, giving them some – or at least, helping them to understand that they can choose a particular outcome – can be one useful way of not worsening the conflict.

      Flipside – I did have a client once who would explicitly ask us what the response would be if he did X. He would then weigh X based upon the value of it versus the significance of the outcome. This is generally good, except when he said, “If I hit him, what are you guys going to do to me?” And we explained. And then he said, “Okay.” And then he hit him. But, his was a special case we rarely ran into.


      • In that type of situation — if his intent was reasonably clear — would you/could you intervene before he actually hit the other kid? Could you say something like, “If you give us good reason to think you are going to hit him, here is the response you can expect”?

        In describing this general approach, I often refer to it as the illusion of choice. It is inherently question begging. I demonstrated it with Zazzy once while she was trying to get Mayo to put on shoes, something he was steadfastly against. I walked over, got down to eye level, and using the tone described said, “Do you want to wear your blue shoes or your yellow shoes?” He happily picked out the yellow ones and that was that. Is it manipulative? In a sense, yes. But at the same time, isn’t it far less manipulative — and far better — than what we saw demonstrated here?

        Again, seriously great post.


        • So, there are a lot of tricks to this particular trade, but I’m a huge fan of the one that you mentioned – getting down to eye level. I’m a big guy, so in almost any conversation with any client, I was always the biggest one there. This was doubly so if they were sitting down. I found it far more effective to get at eye level or beneath eye level (I once sat on a floor talking to a kid sitting on a bed, for example), because it lessens the physical tension that exists behind the scene. It decreases a source of pressure.

          Also, implied in your “the yellow or the blue” is that a third option is not available. That’s also good because it refocuses conflict. “This is no longer about whether your shoes are going on, but rather, which ones are going on.” There is power in the child getting to make that decision, even if they’re not getting the thing that they really wanted, which was no shoes at all. It says, implicitly, “I’m not here to get everything. I’m here to get the one thing, shoes, and you can have all of the rest to yourself.”

          Too many people forget that in conflict. It isn’t about getting everything. It’s about getting the one thing. Some people make a deal about not getting everything they want – “Oh, she got up to leave, but she wasn’t walking crisply, and she was slouched, and she was walking slowly.” Yeah, BUT SHE GOT UP TO LEAVE. That’s what matters. That’s what was desired, right?

          (In the case of the kid, I think the hit was a punch in the arm, which he was then punished for, but not restrained for, because he literally said something like, “Okay, I hit him in the arm. I’m done. Punish me.” Could we have intervened? Maybe, but this was very fast-moving. Had we been positioned to intervene and considered the threat serious, we could have moved to restraint, although that wouldn’t have been good. Simply separating the two would have done the job.)


          • Removing the third option is what I meant by question begging. It is no longer IF you are wearing shoes or IF you are going… But WHICH shoes or HOW you go. And this framing often goes unnoticed, which is a good thing.

            In general, the more you can work collaboratively with your charge, the better. And not in a “Good cop, I’m just trying to gain your trust” kinda way but a “I’m actually on your side and understand your position but we’ve reached a certain point of escalation that requires certain things to happen but together we can make them happen advantageously for you.” I also find reiterating to them that you really fo want to hear their side and really are going to let them make it known helps.

            But affirming the humanity is so key and kudos on you tor highlighting it.


  2. So then maybe the good news is that Ben Fields was fired – it is certainly better than the alternative – but he will almost certainly be replaced by the next heavy-handed authoritarian whose goal is order rather than effective intervention.

    This is from Sheriff Leon Lott’s statement when he announced the firing:

    The third video shows the student striking Deputy Fields in the face with her fist when his hand makes the initial contact with her arm. At that point the arrest escalates to Deputy Fields using force to arrest her. In my opinion Deputy Fields could have accomplished the arrest or handled the situation without some of the actions he did. The one that concerns me the most was the throwing of the student across the floor. I do not feel that was proper and follows our policy and procedures. Our training unit verified that the maneuver was not based on training or acceptable. Based on his actions, Deputy Fields has been terminated as a Deputy Sheriff with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.

    NPR gives a little more background into *WHY* the throwing of the student across the floor was concerning:


    LOTT: When you make an arrest from someone who does not have a weapon that you need to escape from, you never let go of that subject. You maintain control of the person you’re trying to arrest. When we threw her across the room, he lost control of her. That’s not acceptable. That’s what violated our policy.

    The grabbing and the yanking were part of the policy. It was the letting go that violated the policy.


      • He “deserved” a dangerous and potentially deadly charge of electricity delivered at close range after six police officers decided they couldn’t possibly handle a single student? Sure.


          • That certainly makes it easy. It’s a shame that those six police officers weren’t capable of anything but using a potentially deadly taser, but he deserved it, so at least that’s good.


          • So puttin him in a choke-hold and bustin him a few times in the groin wasn’t contextually appropriate, nor was restraining him via the mere use of 12 hands? Ah, sure. Now I see! Tazing him was just right.

            How bout shooting Tamir Rice? Did he get what he deserved too?


            • To me, the word “deserve” has a component of moral culpability that is lacking in the Rice case. I wouldn’t say that he deserved to be shot but I would say that it was an a legitimate use of force given the circumstances.


              • To me, the word “deserve” has a component of moral culpability

                Agreed. And that’s what my question was directed at: how do you determine what a person deserves wrt the use of force as a punishment? You think the Don’t Taze Me guy had done something, engaged in some action, such that he deserved to be punished by the infliction of pain, and the appropriate amount of pain he deserved was a tazing.

                I’m just wondering how you come to those conclusions. What constitutes behavior deserving of the use of violence, and what constitutes just the right amount of inflicted pain. I just watched the video again and one of the cops pulled a gun on him about three seconds after they tried to escort him out of the room. And remember, too, that all he did was ask Kerry a question – granted, a politically incorrect question, but one which oughta be governed by free speech protections, no?

                Seems to me that there were all sorts of ways that scenario coulda played out without immediately pulling a gun on the kid, and then tazing him when he resisted.


  3. And this is before we bother thinking about what it is that officers are trained to do. Substantive, meaningful crisis intervention isn’t their bailiwick; authoritarianism is. That any school’s foremost concern is control leads us straight into the second challenge.

    Properly intervening in the lives of children simultaneously requires significant investment, in the form of salaries (which aren’t available), in the form of trainings (which are costly), and perhaps most importantly, in the desire to see children (and especially teenagers) as human beings worthy of substantive attention.

    I think the only logical conclusion of this is, frankly, that we should just stop with the entire concept that police officers should be used for *any* discipline at all.

    The police should only be involved when there is an actual crime committed, and they probably don’t need to be stationed at schools at all. If they are stationed there, it should be more with the intent of protecting against *outside* forces, not dealing with children, but they probably don’t need to be stationed there.

    You want to know what would be a great advance in this country? If the police stopped trying to enforce the rules of other entities. If you couldn’t hire a police officer and somehow magically end up able to exercise *the law* against other people.

    As was mentioned by , the Sheriff talked about how the officer didn’t follow procedure for *arresting* someone…by what law was he *arresting* her? What *law* had she broken?

    Are the police trying to claim she was trespassing, because she was asked to leave? Trespassing, by a minor, at the property of people acting in loco parentis? That’s an…interesting arrest, functionally the same as a parent trying to have their kid arrested because their kid keeps sneaking into the game room and playing X-Box TV when they’re grounded. I mean, okay, *technically*, that might be trespassing, but good luck running that past a jury.


    • I was going to make more or less the same point as you re: police stationed in a school.

      How on earth did we arrive at a point where a high school has not one but two police officers stationed there more or less full time?

      I remember my high school had a police liaison officer or whatever they called it. He was there maybe one afternoon a week, on ‘officer friendly’ type duties – being present, visibly relaxed and smiling, at pep rallies, delivering scientifically dubious soliloquies on drug use and such – not to arrest anyone.


      • While I have a lot of issues with school security protocols, having a police officer or two there isn’t really one of them. Some of that may come down to the experience of going to high school with almost 4,000 other students. That’s the size of a small town. (Having said that, I couldn’t tell you who our police officers were. I do remember that it was handled through the county sheriff’s department, which I consider better than having an independent school district police department, which is the norm. I may not remember who the officers were by virtue of them cycling in and out a lot. Or maybe that they mostly just stayed out of the way, which was not a bad state of affairs.


          • I went to a public high school in a well-off Bay Area community in the 70s, and we certainly did not have any police presence.

            And where there’s justification for one (or any armed presence), it’s because of violence or the threat of violence, not because smart-assed kids are disobedient.


            • It’s definitely possible there was a cultural shift circa 1985 or so.

              The early mid 80s was high point of suburban panics that the cooties of the inner city would spread to their part of the metro area. Premptive policing certainly would have been in the mix, and with the baby bust keeping school populations low, not that expensive of an initiative.


    • Everything becomes much clearer if you view police as bureaucrats (highly unaccountable bureaucrats who carry firearms and have powerful unions) whose job it is to arrest people. For some reason popular culture insists that the police are there to help but that’s really not where their incentives are. This is an extremely rare instance of accountability but I’d bet my paycheck he’ll be hired as a police officer in another jurisdiction in the next year.


  4. This is a really excellent post. The altercation seemed to me to be totally disproportional–something that was clearly more about anger and ego than gaining compliance. But at the same time, it’s clearly unacceptable to allow a student to conclude that the administration and officer are powerless to enforce any rules. At the end of the road somewhere, there has to be some trump card that the student can’t beat. I just didn’t have the first clue how long that road should be and how they should have walked it to avoid getting to the end.

    It’s hard to hold an officer accountable for the situation if I don’t have a good picture in my head of what he should have done (aside from doing the same thing slightly more gently). He clearly understood that letting her get her way was unacceptable, but that seems to be the only part of the equation he understood.


  5. I just think that a good chunk of the population is authoritarian to some degree. The reaction seems to be that anything an authority figure does is right.


  6. Teacher: Hey baby, you can’t have your bottle right now.

    Baby: Its mine!

    Teacher: Come on now.

    Baby: No!

    Teacher: Well you stay there then.

    Baby: Fine.

    Time passes. Policeman is called.

    Policeman: You will relinquish the bottle, or I will be authorized to use deadly force.

    Baby: Waaah! No!!!

    Policeman: Blaaah! Attack!

    Sam and all reasonable people: Let the baby have its bottle and then teach it a lesson later.


  7. Excellent post Sam. It’s important to explain precisely why what Fields did was so utterly wrong, and you did a fine job of it. I have a couple of minor quibbles though:

    he will almost certainly be replaced by the next heavy-handed authoritarian whose goal is order rather than effective intervention.

    I don’t believe Field’s goal was order, what he did jeopardised the order of the classroom more than the student was. I believe his goal was dominance – that is the motivation that makes most sense, given his behaviour.

    Also, while the resources for proper crisis response would be expensive, teaching your law enforcement not to respond to every problem by trying to beat it to death would be a step in the right direction. Also calling the cops for classroom defiance seems like extra, super, massive overkill. Even if the cops can’t help the situation, they could at least be trained to not do any harm.


    • As Sam wrote:

      Properly intervening in the lives of children simultaneously requires significant investment, in the form of salaries (which aren’t available), in the form of trainings (which are costly)

      In other words, this isn’t a problem that can be addressed given the current state of the American economy. In fact, since the only way to get the money for the needed salaries and training would be to raise taxes and thus reduce growth, attempting to address it would be counter-productive. Americans simply needs to resign ourselves to living through this period of barbarism until we have the wealth to try to improve things.


      • I would dispute that money has much to do with this. It’s a cultural attitude about authority and how order should be maintained. What this situation required was an adult in the room. I think JayBird is right, that all money would have bought was another deputy.


        • The student didn’t obey the first adult, the teacher, so they had to call in the second adult, the RSO. Few folks here seem to expect that the student should obey the teacher or the cop.


          • On the one hand, I agree that the student was obligated to follow the direction she was receiving, but not following a direction does not strike me as justification for violent assault. Which is the point. There are interactions available that do not stray into outright assault.


          • No one here is questioning whether or not the child should have obeyed her teacher. Of course she should have. What people are questioning is why the school’s answer to a disobedient teenager is a beating by a law enforcement officer.


    • Don’t big cities have “school cops”? I don’t know if they’re actually licensed cops like at uni, but… There should be some people with a bit of specialized training for “how to handle a ‘mostly stable’ situation”. Defiant kids in school are way different than defiant person with knife.


    • Dominance is perhaps a better word. That’s certainly his personal goal. I think he is in the school to achieve order, but I could have been clearer.

      As for simply saying, “Save being an absolute lunatic for the very worst situations,” I’m with you.


  8. Sam Wilkinson:
    I find this answer extremely offensive and frankly ignorant, as is also perfectly comfortable with a noncompliant person having the absolute shit kicked out of them.

    At least give me the courtesy of being offended by those things I actually said.


    • You said that you have no problem with an officer using folks against people who are deserve it, and you at least heavily implied that non-compliance was sufficient provocation to warrant the “deserves” it.

      If you don’t like that characterization, maybe you could give a couple of incidents of non-compliance that would not warrant the label “sufficient provocation”?


      • I may have said or implied that non compliance would deserve it (some force) but I didn’t say anything about excessive use of force as Sam claims. He took my statement and blew it out of proportion to suit his argument. In this case, I thought use of force, the taser, was appropriate, justified and deserved served given the circumstances. The cops in this case didn’t use excessive force.


        • In what circumstances would the appropriate amount of force be more than none, but less than the taser? The posts you made above implied there were no such circumstances.


          • Take this incident for instance. If it had ended half way thru the encounter instead of proceeding to the eventual outcome, then the taser wouldn’t have been necessary.


  9. Overall I like the post but I would mildly disagree with Step 2. I would argue that, in a classroom setting, the explanation of consequences needs to have a “stick” both for the problem student AND for the other 29 students. The high school that I went to was upper-middle to upper class and you still had a bunch of students who would not only call this bluff but would copycat as well. Adding a ‘stick” such as stating in a calm voice “If my teammate and I have to pick up this desk and remove you with it, it will result in a suspension for you.” still treats the student as a human being but it does place consequences for non-compliance.

    It also puts the other 29 students on notice that this is not behavior to be duplicated. This is important because, in a classroom setting, you have 29 other students who can see that class has been disrupted for a minimum of 20 minutes before the officer has been summoned. Presuming that you don’t just spit out the steps 1 and 2 rapid-fire, its probably going to be 30 minutes before the student is removed. Whether this is two-thirds, half, or one-third, the class period is probably shot to hell at this point. At this point, you have to treat it as a teachable moment for the other 29 as well as for the problem student. Calmly including a “stick” in the conversation is a subtle reminder of authority without being heavy-handed about it.

    Other than that, I join in the golf clap.


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