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Detroit Teacher’s $390,000 Settlement is a Symptom of Much Bigger Problems

I seriously doubt that Detroit English teacher Tiffani Eaton-Davis will be diving back into the trenches anytime soon. If ever.

Her broom-swatting attempts at breaking up a wild classroom fist fight at Pershing High School on April 14, 2014 got her fired.

Captured on a student’s cell phone, the footage shows two boys plowing into desks, and one kid pounding the other in the face. Eventually, a classmate intervenes, separating the two.

According to a story published in the Detroit Free Press online, Eaton-Davis sued Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority in federal court over civil rights violations, alleging that white teachers at the school had physically broken up fights without being disciplined. “The EAA is a controversial reform school district that Gov. Rick Snyder opened in 2012 in an effort to turn around the bottom 5% of Michigan schools. All 15 of its schools used to be part of Detroit Public Schools.”

In addition, Eaton-Davis said the district failed to warn her of the “unusually high amount of violence and fighting” at the school. While they offered her a job at any EAA school, the lady didn’t bite.

She recently won a $390,000 settlement from EAA.

“This is about the destruction of her dream and her career,” said her lawyer, Jim Rasor.

The settlement, however, while possibly fair, is just is a symptom of much bigger problems.

Not only are schools still using outmoded methods of discipline that increase a child’s chances of dropping out, educators and administrators seem completely out of touch with advances in brain science, especially what we now know about the affects of stress on children’s brain development, cognitive ability, and behavior.

Add to this a corporate grab for taxpayer dollars (aka charter schools), and public education is in a death spiral.

Taking it apart, Eaton-Davis’s situation wasn’t just a formula for failure. It was a Molotov cocktail:

  • Teenagers whose lack of academic success has left them without necessary skills to succeed.
  • Discouragement over the fact that they were sold a bill of goods, and are just now discovering that everything they wanted to be in elementary school – pediatricians, veterinarians, airline pilots – won’t be happening. Not for them. And they’re pissed.
  • Too few role models. Too few positive interactions – required for brain-building in early childhood.
  • Chronic stress (now known to be the cause of cognitive and behavior problems, including poor self-control and problem-solving skills).
  • Inexperienced teachers not given union benefits or pay – guaranteed to send morale into the trash can, along with all the uneaten school lunches.

It seems state governments now have a knack for dooming public schools to failure. That’s because ensuring failure is the only way they can justify selling public schools to their corporate amigos, throwing children under the bus for the purpose of privatization.

Public schools, once a proud American tradition, used to be a path to better jobs and the middle class. Now profiteers want tax payers to line their pockets, often with little accountability  and a terrible tendency to dispose of special-needs kids –  a great way to raise test scores.

In 1983, President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education issued “A Nation At Risk,”a damning report on American public education.  My older daughter, now the bearer of two master’s degrees, was just a year old baby, romping around in diapers.

The report shook parents’ faith in their children’s schools, promising a grim future for the masses barring immediate reform. It declared, “[T]he educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”

Here’s an excerpt from an article titled “The Myth Behind Public School Failure”(Dean Patton, Yes! Magazine, Feb. 21, 2014) “Despite its hyperbole (or perhaps because of it), ‘A Nation At Risk’ became a timely cudgel for the larger privatization movement. With Reagan and Friedman, the Nobel-Prize-winning economist, preaching that salvation would come once most government services were turned over to private entrepreneurs, the privatizers began proselytizing to get government out of everything from the post office to the public schools.”

If there’s free government money to be had, private corporations want it.

Like educators before her, Eaton-Davis no doubt believed that if she just tried hard enough, took an interest in her students, and planned and executed her lessons well, she could make a difference.

On the job for only three months at the time of the incident, the new teacher faced a reality that was far from ideal. She seemed to have wandered into a quagmire of dysfunction, with more violence and fighting, she claims, than administers were willing to admit when she signed on.

Any successes the English teacher might have attained must have been punctuated with wasted time, scribbling petty offenders’ names on the board, giving out detention slips, constant reprisals for bad language, and keeping combatants apart – stuff not on the syllabus of her teachers’ ed courses.

What could have happened – what might have happened –is something entirely different. But that would have taken imagination, solid research, and more than a little courage, on the part of a good many forward-thinking people.

Programs like the one created by psychologist Ross Green, called Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS), offer real solutions.

Schools using CPS have seen dramatic results, “(R)eporting drops as great as 80 percent in disciplinary referrals, suspensions, and incidents of peer aggression.” (Catherine Reynolds-Lewis. “The End of Punishment.”  Mother Jones July/Aug. 2015: pp. 40-45. Print.)

Psychology professor Russell Skiba is the director of the Equity Project at Indiana University. He says focusing on problem solving is now believed to be key to successful discipline – not punishment. (Mother Jones, pp. 40-45)

Instead, the practice should be listening to children, believing them, and then involving them in figuring out appropriate responses instead of punishing them for acting out. “After all,” Reynolds-Lewis writes, “What good does it do to punish a child who literally hasn’t yet acquired the brain functions required to control his behavior?” (Mother Jones, July/Aug. 2015)

The kids responsible for the Pershing fiasco were given only two and three-day suspensions. Then zing!  Back into the pressure cooker. Meanwhile, their English teacher was publicly humiliated. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it didn’t make sense.

But here is it: High levels of violence and fighting are just a symptom of the real problem. What scientists are saying now is that negative early childhood experiences can influence the development of brain architecture, causing problems over a lifetime. Stress can be particularly damaging.

Of the three types of stress – normal, manageable and toxic – toxic stress is the most harmful to a child’s brain and body.

The Harvard Center for the Developing Child is my go-to website. Here’s what it says: “Toxic stress response can occur when a child experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity – such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship – without adequate adult support. This kind of prolonged activation of the stress response systems can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.”
(Retrieved from: http://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/toxic-stress/)

Most kids don’t sit down to a bowl of oatmeal in the morning, thinking, “Gee, I think I’ll beat someone to a bloody pulp today.” It’s the way the body reacts, because at one time the child thought it had to. Times when their needs weren’t being met. Times when they had to hide from their parents’ fighting. Times when there was no one at home to care for them. When a person feels threatened, the body produces stress hormones, mainly cortisol. Even situations similar to the original, called triggers, can produce a stress response.

Maladaptive? Heck yeah. But we all know adults who “go off” at the drop of a hat. They just don’t know why they do it.

Why is stress such a big deal for little kids? I mean, kids aren’t supposed to get stressed-out. Right?

If school personnel understood this they would recognize that children who bounce around the room, talk out of turn, or act like velociraptors, have been affected by toxic stress.  Yes, this is brain science.

Watch this YouTube video featuring UCLA psychologist Allan Schore. You’ll learn why  healthy attachment is so important to brain development. The differences between kids who are well-nurtured and those who aren’t are even visible in fMRIs.

This information should matter to teachers. Strong early attachment relationships enable children to bond with other adults, including teachers, scout leaders, pastors. It enables them to learn like crazy.

Without it, kids are going to have problems. Not just maybe. Guaranteed.

A member of my Junior Girl Scout troop, a kid who pretty much raised herself, sabotaged every single activity with disruptive behavior. She lacked the ability to bond with an adult authority figure. She could not benefit from the experience. And with her around, no one could have any fun.

California is at least starting to figure it out. In Sept. 2014, California became the first state to ban suspensions for minor misbehavior, including “willful defiance. “For the next 3.5 years, the law eliminates in-school and out-of-school suspensions for children in grades K-3 for disruptive behavior currently captured in Education Code section 48900(k) and bans all expulsions for this reason. The bill was co-sponsored by Public Counsel, Children Now, Fight Crime Invest in Kids, and the ACLU of California and supported by a statewide coalition of organizations.”

In another first-in-the-nation decision, the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing now requires principals and administrators to take training in best practices in classroom management and positive school discipline, including Positive Behavior Intervention and Restorative Practices.

“Under Green’s philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for yelling out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test.” (Mother Jones, July/Aug. 2015)

What educators and admins seem to forget on a daily basis is that that “bad” kids don’t want to be bad. Slapping on a diagnosis – ODD or ADHD, or just using buzz words, like “acts out in class” – does not give kids tools they can use to take control of their own behavior. It just gives their symptoms a name.

We can close the gap between research and putting best practices to work in the classroom by hitting up future teachers while they’re still in college. In our nation’s teacher education programs. Because now we know that systems of reward and punishment – check marks on the blackboard for misbehavior, and candies and pizza parties for compliance (yes, some teachers still use candy) are useless when a child comes to school with big problems and has no way to even begin talking about them.

The settlement paid to teacher Tiffani Eaton-Davis does little to solve the real problem. Sadly, her dream of becoming a teacher was quashed by these kids. But kids just like them will still be there – year after year after year.

But unless we start doing things differently, including getting private corporations out of public education, we can’t expect anything to change. FFG

 

 

 

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