Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Newtown Tragedy and the Teacher's Dilemma

This is not going to be a post trying to understand what happened this past Friday in Newtown, Connecticut.  I don't think that anyone will ever or possibly can understand what possesses an individual to murder 26 innocent people, including 20 kindergarten children, in cold blood.  And, honestly, it won't matter all that much even if  the police manage to piece together a motive.  Nothing is going to bring those children or the adults who cared for them back to this world.

This is also not going to be a post about how the concept of school as a fortress has been once again shattered.  After Columbine and Virginia Tech and who knows how many other such tragedies, schools have had in mind the possibility that some deranged individual could, in a flash, turn a ordinary school day into unspeakable horror.  My school, in accordance with State law, conducts drills every month preparing us for what to do in case a dangerous individual is inside or outside of the building.  My sense is that we are all going to take the next drill a lot more seriously.

No, this post is about something that teachers struggle with from time to time when dealing with difficult students.  We are being told that the murderer in Newtown was a loner, the type of kid who would avoid prolonged interaction with others.  He was apparently intelligent, but had personality issues that probably led some of his teachers or guidance counselors to wonder if he was in some way classifiable.

And, let's face it, every school has kids who are like that in some way - withdrawn, shy, socially awkward, perhaps the target of bullies.  After Columbine and other tragedies, there was much talk about how the perpetrators had been socially marginalized and speculation ensued that if we could make schools more inclusive places then we could undercut some of the emotions of exclusion that were suspected to have led to murder.  As such, the past decade has seen a tremendous amount of discussion and programming and legislating about bullying, to the point where certain states have developed "anti-bullying" laws that require schools to file all sorts of paperwork every time one student says anything demeaning to another student.

But now we come to this case, and we have to go back to the drawing board.  This murderer does not seem to have been subject to bullying.  His social marginalization seems to be self-inflicted and there are as yet no accounts of his having been made to suffer at the hands of others (of course, we may yet learn that he was).  At this moment, a mere 60 hours after the tragedy, it seems that the murderer was some who had been mentally ill for some time, and somehow something snapped that brought him to this - or a series of events eventually led to this moment.

And that is where I get to the dilemma that teachers face.  There is an article being passed around social networks today written by a woman whose 13-year old son displayed such violent behavior that she eventually made good on her promise to bring him to a mental hospital after he threatened her over a dispute concerning the pants he was wearing.  While the behaviors of the boy in this article are more extreme than any I have ever seen in my almost 20 years of teaching tweens, I have definitely seen behavior that is a mere few steps below his on the extreme-behavior ladder. Should I ignore a student who locks up when things do not go as planned?  Do I call the school psychologist? The principal? The police?  I would hope that at least the latter two options would be considered a gross overreaction, but I cannot help but think that there are people in Newtown today who knew the murderer a few years ago and are questioning whether they should have done more back then so that 26 people could still be alive today.

It is a bit of a tightrope that we, teachers and parents, walk when it comes to extreme behaviors.  We want to believe that our children are having a rough stretch or are learning how to work through conflicts or are just a bit on the quiet side.  We don't want to be alarmist or offend anyone or stigmatize a child before he or she has had a chance to mature and develop into the fine young man or woman that we are sure they can become with the right guidance and love and nurturing.


But the more that these tragedies continue to dot the landscape of our consciousness, the more that there is a tiny voice in the back of our minds that wonders about that kid who is a little too impulsive, too detached, too difficult to reach.  Does this child have the capacity to, God forbid, do something unspeakable?  Is it OK for me, as a teacher, to think that about any child?  If yes, then is there something that I should be doing, even as minimum as throwing up a red flag to those people who can be helpful?  If not, am I running the risk of ignoring a child who, at the end of the day, needs help?

The answers are not easy, but it is important that we grapple with the questions.

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