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.]