Last week Web wrote about a case of a bully fighting back and getting punished for it. This brings up a subject that I’ve written about in the past. I thought I had written a post about it, but if so I can’t find it.
It was the policy of my school system that anybody participating in a fight, regardless of who started it and who “won” it, was to receive equal punishment. The policy in the Redstone school district seems to be similar, though it does appear to leave more discretion in the hands of the administration.
When I was in the 6th grade, I was the target of a 7th grader. In the ebb and flow of growth spurts, I was not at my largest at this point. I was bigger than this kid, but he was taller. He was relentless in the psychological taunts. At one point, I said something relatively meager in response and the next thing I knew I was Target #1. It wasn’t long before I was goaded into what would have been a fight. In the hallway outside the PE room, he and I were lined up and it was obvious what was going to happen.
It was then that red flags started going up in my mind. I realized that, at the core, I couldn’t do this. It wasn’t that I was afraid of getting beaten up. I had no idea who would win. If anything, I was more confident that I could win at the time than I am in retrospect. My main concern was getting in trouble. Getting in trouble with the school, but more importantly getting in trouble with my parents. The notion of the adverse effect it would have on my future was, while not central because what sixth grader is really thinking about such things, nonetheless on the borders of my consciousness.
And that’s the effect of these policies. For good and for ill. Here we had one kid that had no real future to speak of, and you had me. You had one kid whose parents probably didn’t care all that much, and you had parents like mine who would have freaked out. You had one kid for whom suspension is a three-day vacation, and you had me to whom suspension was unthinkable. And, of course, he had friends willing to throw in and I didn’t. In the end, regardless of courage and who would win, he held all the cards. And he knew it.
And it’s this that makes the policy so grossly unfair. It gives one party all of the leverage. Worse than that, it gives the wrong party all the leverage. It places all of the responsibility of avoiding a fight on the kid that is (a) not the instigator and (b) the one more inclined to follow rules.
Yet while the policy was grossly unfair, it had a certain effectiveness. Because I knew that I couldn’t get into a fight, I walked away and paid the social price for it. And I walked on friggin’ eggshells never to be put in that situation again. I took body gloves*. I took depantsing. I took stolen caps, stolen pencils, and all manner of other torment. While that absolutely, positively sucked for me, no fights occurred. Without that policy, they would have. And while it is completely unfair to do so, placing the burden on the more responsible party is effective insofar as the responsible party can be more relied on to defuse the fight. To walk away. To be a coward. What I discovered was that there was almost always a way to avoid a full-on fight, so long as you checked your self-respect at the door. Of course, it also lead me to things which the district would not approve of.
And from the administration’s standpoint, what’s the alternative? Most fights occur outside eyesight, so you take one kid who says “he hit me” and the other saying “no, I didn’t” or “he tried to hit me, first!” and what do you do? Common sense may tell you that Kid A is a generally good kid with good marks and good conduct scores while Kid B is always in trouble, but do you punish kids based on supposition? In my first substitute teaching assignment, I had a first grade class with a particular troublemaker. When the main teacher was there and I was observing and waiting to take over, I saw a couple of occasions where the troublemaker hadn’t actually done anything wrong but was blamed anyway because… well… he was a troublemaker. I felt sorry for the kid right up until I took the reins and discovered exactly why teachers were targeting him.
Back on the first hand, the policy excuses administration/teacher response considerably. They don’t need to stop fights because they don’t have to worry about the fallout. The punishments are send down from on high. No need to figure out the circumstances. No need to figure out who started it and who wasn’t able to walk away. So all of those things that lead up to fights, like verbal taunting, one-off assaults, and so on can be simply ignored or merely tut-tutted. In PE, the body gloves occurred in full view of the coach, who would simply tell the kid to cut it out (which they wouldn’t) and commence. And in a perverse way, you were thankful for this, because the alternative was that the coach would punish the entire class with pushups or laps. And when that happened, who do you think the more powerful within the class targeted? The big kid whom nobody wanted to cross) or the kid who had the temerity to say “ouch”?
And so it becomes a bureaucratic thing. It allows teachers to ignore that which can be ignored. And it absolves them of any involvement (except meting out standardized punishment) of that which cannot be ignored. But it does manage to cut down on the actual number of fights, on the whole. If you’re willing to overlook everything else.
This is where a whole lot of Casey’s support comes from, I think. Having been in the situation that I describe above. I had a pretty good friend in high school, Sam, who became our Casey. One of the more notorious bullies assaulted him (discovering later that his arm was broken in the process). Sam retaliated with a pencil jab near the eye. The bully wore an eyepatch for a couple months after while Sam had to wear a cast for a while. Both were suspended for three days and made complete physical recoveries (though the bully stopped being much of a bully after that). When my friend’s parents objected to his punishment, they actually used the fact that Sam didn’t know that his arm had been broken when he retaliated, and that he didn’t know that the pencil wouldn’t kill the bully (a fairer point).
* - Body gloving is where, when someone is shirtless, you slap them across the back with fingers spread and an open palm. It leaves a hand-shaped mark. And hurts like hell. Needless to say, in any shirts/skins game, I cringed whenever I was put on the skins team.