School of hard knocks

The details involving two savage beatings of Philadelphia teachers by their "students" (a word I use advisedly), make me question whether the words "education" and "school" mean what they're supposed to mean.

I've previously written about the most recent incident in which a teacher's neck was broken by a student whose iPod had been confiscated temporarily. The Inquirer's Daniel Rubin has more:

....One moment Burd, 60, was in the hallway of Germantown High with a 17-year-old senior whose iPod he had confiscated in class. The next moment he was in the ambulance.

Maybe that's a memory he doesn't need. Then he won't have to replay the assault. A hall camera caught the incident: two students hitting him, sending him crashing into a locker. He struck his head, leaving a deep gash in his scalp and snapping two vertebrae.


Three times during Algebra II the boy had pulled out the digital music player, and three times Burd had threatened to confiscate it.

The rules say that when a student uses a phone or music player in the classroom, the teacher is to hand the device over to the school police. But Burd always returned it at the end of the period.

"All I want to do is teach," he says. "And they want to listen to music. But they play it so loud I hear it in the front of the room and the other kids are bopping to the beat."

The boy's explosion makes no sense. He was doing good work, had ability, even if it was his second time taking the class.

OK, sorry to interrupt, but isn't there something wrong right there? If he had to take the class for a second time, how is that consistent with doing good work? He'd turned his life around -- only he preferred listening to his iPod instead of the teacher, and then broke the teacher's neck for trying to stop him?

Good work?


As what? As an enforcer for Tony Soprano?

OK, sorry I interrupted. I just want to understand.

"He's a bright kid. I had a rapport with him. I don't know where [the rage] came from. I don't understand, and I find it frustrating because I care about these kids. They're angry at something that has nothing to do with you."
If they are so angry that they have to break their teachers' necks, I don't understand either, and quite frankly, I don't want to understand. It isn't the teacher's fault that they are that way, and it isn't his fault that he cannot help them. I don't believe that the majority of students are that way, though. I think the problem consists of a minority of angry violent kids who don't belong in normal schools, but are tolerated.

Reading on, it becomes quite clear that violent, disruptive kids have to be tolerated, and that teachers are no more allowed to get rid of them than jailers are allowed to discharge inmates for being disruptive:

"It's way worse than people know," Lelah Marie, who teaches Spanish at Paul Robeson High, said by phone. "We are living in one universe and they are in another, where the kids have all sorts of tiny MP3 players and phones. They take calls in class, and do not stop talking."

It's an everyday battle.

"The district has a policy of no electronics in class. We're supposed to take them away, but kids won't give them up. One kid will take it and pass it along to others... .

"They're so distracted by this stuff. You want to make some contact with the kids, but they really dislike you when you do."

At least she didn't blame the iPods! (Good for her.) Anyway, I am sorry to hear that the students "really dislike" teachers making contact, but the purpose of a school is education, not confinement. If kids refuse to behave, they should be sent to the principal's office and then home. If the conduct is repeated, they should simply not be allowed to return. The schools have a duty to the other kids to ensure that they have the opportunity to be educated, not confined with and terrorized by juvenile delinquents.

I'm reminded again of Kim du Toit's post about feral kids:

...High school kids, unsupervised, are the most feral little beasts on the planet, and we saw no reason why we should subject our kids to that ordeal. The most common response to that statement was usually, "It makes them tougher" or "They learn how to cope with a hostile environment, like they may encounter in the adult world".

Specious nonsense. In the outside world, when you are immersed in a "hostile environment" (work, university, whatever), you have the means to leave it. That's not the case in high school, where you are coerced into staying together with no options to separate yourself from your tormentors.

The problem here is that their "supervisors" are not allowed to supervise them. They aren't even allowed to really behave as the jailers that they are. At least jailers have some self defense capability, and they aren't forced to pretend that they're "teaching."

Daniel Rubin leaves us with the teacher feeling overwhelmed:

Today, Burd is scheduled for surgery. The doctors plan to rebuild his neck using parts of his hip. He's not ready to think about whether he'll step inside Germantown High again, let alone teach another class.

"The idea I had my neck broken by a student," he says, "is overwhelming."

I'm sure it is, and my heart goes out to this man. He should have been allowed to teach students instead of being forced into the role of unacknowledged daytime jailer.

In today's Inquirer, there's an interview with another teacher who thought he was going to teach music, but got his jaw broken instead:

While he tried to teach jazz, Klein said, students made phone calls in class, brought in bags of fast food, and listened to their own music on "electronic devices."

The school handbook tells teachers to call parents if students cause problems in class. After Klein made the calls, four of his five classes settled down.

Sorry, but that is a very dangerous "policy," and if I were a teacher I would refuse to follow it. Many of the bad kids have bad parents -- some of whom can be counted on to be more dangerous than Junior. Whoever wrote this inane policy must have watched too much "Leave it to Beaver" in which a call from Miss Landers would set the whole Cleaver family into a tizzy. Against Beaver! Today's Philadelphia Cleavers would be more likely to be waiting for teach with some "discipline" of their own in mind!

Today's piece continues:

But on Friday, Oct. 27, a student in his worst class - third period - told him to stop calling parents or he would regret it.

The next Monday, as students changed classes between third and fourth periods, a student sprayed Klein head to toe with a water-filled school fire extinguisher.

At the same time the next day, a student sprayed Klein again.

Then on Wednesday, he said, another student threatened to kill him and "f- him up" after school for allegedly causing a friend to be suspended.

And on Thursday, four students Klein had never seen before walked into his classroom at the end of third period. They surrounded him and began picking up papers from his desk and boasting: "There is nothing you can do about this, cracker."

Well, I have to say, I can't fault the students for honesty in this instance.

There was indeed nothing he could do, and his feral charges knew it:

Throughout the days of the harassment and threats, Klein said, he went to the school's security office to report them and fill out the required forms.

When Klein arrived the morning of Friday, Nov. 3, he told the security guard at the school's metal detector that he had had enough and would seek a transfer to another school.

At 10:40 a.m. that day, Klein said, a student he didn't recognize came into his room at the end of third period while other students were in the room. Klein asked his name and directed him to leave. "It was clear he was looking for a confrontation," he recalled.

Klein stepped into the hallway to see whether he could spot a school police officer who was often nearby, but no one was there.

The student walked around and in front of him and squared off like a boxer, Klein said. The student began laughing and taunting Klein with his fists.

"He was jumping around like he was going to hit him me."

Instinctively, Klein said, he put up his hands.

"That's the last thing I remember," he said.

I wonder how much self defense training they give these poor "teachers." Actually, I think they might have a good lawsuit, because the schools clearly are analogous to jails in many ways, and if they sent in a jailer with no self defense training, no special equipment, and no back up, they would definitely be liable.

As for his future as a prison guard teacher, Klein doesn't seem very optimistic:

Klein said he did not know whether he would return to a Philadelphia classroom.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "I'm living a nightmare ... and the worst of it is that it happened in a public school."

I'm sure he is living a nightmare, and like Mr. Burd he has my sympathy. But I have to disagree with the use of the word "school" in this context.

A school is a place of education. Philadelphia "schools" turn out illiterate graduates, and they are violent and dangerous places which force good children who want to learn to be subjected to the tender mercies of violent thugs.

When a teacher is beaten nearly to death, it makes the newspapers. Innocent children have to cope any way they can, and if they are abused or beaten, they'll be taken about as seriously as an abused inmate. I suppose you could say (as du Toit pointed out) that "It makes them tougher." You might even say that "They learn how to cope with a hostile environment, like they may encounter in the adult world." True on both accounts.

But is it education? Is it fair to call these places schools? Is it fair to characterize these young thugs as "students" and their unprotected custodians as "teachers"?

I don't think so.

The dishonesty involved is sometimes overwhelming.

posted by Eric on 03.02.07 at 03:45 PM


The problem is that you can't bring unmotivated dull kids up to average.

I'm convinced that some lack of intelligence can be made up for by motivation.

For the unmotivated there is always the street. Except in America.

M. Simon   ·  March 2, 2007 5:04 PM

It is clear that the problem is only a small minority. Over 70% of high-school graduates go on to some kind of higher education, and these kind of discipline problems are simply never heard of on the same scale at those institutions.

The problem is that in America, as long as you aren't a multiple murderer by 12, we want to pretend that you are smart and capable and hard-working, no matter what. Given that idiotic worldview, it is not hard to see that it would be considered unkind to let students leave school (or kick them out) because of a few "minor" problems.

Some kids are dumb, don't value education, and/or are already barbarians. You can't change the intrinsic abilities of others, you can't change the values that other people have by sheer force of will, and you can't change the nature of the world by closing your eyes and clicking your heels together.

Sorry, this is a hot button issue for me because so much of my family is in education. It is readily apparent to me that most of this problem could be solved by letting students who want to leave go, and kicking disruptive students out. The resources we spend on kids who can't or don't want to learn are actually above the per capita amount spent on the average student. It is sickening to me.

Jon Thompson   ·  March 3, 2007 5:00 AM

I'm a long-winded blowhard, so I'm going to be experimenting with using quotes from the Simpsons to get my point across.

"I don't have any opinions anymore. I just know that no one is better than anyone and everyone is the best at everything" - Principal Skinner

Jon Thompson   ·  March 4, 2007 1:05 AM

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