Society's Toxins, Caught on Tape

By William Raspberry
Monday, May 2, 2005

It's funny how the videotapes have divided us. Some of us saw the footage of the 5-year-old girl gone berserk in her St. Petersburg, Fla., classroom and decided we'd been too harsh in our judgment of the school officials for calling the police. Others saw the cops handcuffing the tiny child and decided it was the grown-ups who had gone nuts.

I look at the tape and tremble for fear that I'm looking at a fledgling outlaw whose path, if uninterrupted, could land her in jail -- or worse. And it can't be a 5-year-old's fault.

You've probably seen the tape by now. There is this child -- 40 pounds, if that -- trashing her teacher's desk, kicking another teacher, throwing her tiny fists in a fury that's hard to believe.

When they finally get her to the principal's office, the video shows her atop a table, stomping and throwing books, then ripping papers off a bulletin board.

And finally she is handcuffed by officers, at least one of whom apparently has encountered the girl before.

Seven weeks after the March 14 incident, we still watch the tape and wonder what we'd have done had we stood in the place of the school officials. Then we learn that, for the most part, they had done it, seemingly following their training to the letter: Try to de-escalate the situation, but let the child know that her actions have consequences; give her a chance to end the conflict; defend yourself and protect other students, but try not to touch the child.

Okay, I wouldn't have put handcuffs on the kid -- an action that may have been intended as some sort of "scared straight" device -- but how harshly can we judge the rest of it?

Which is probably the wrong question. A better question is: How did it come to this? I have in mind the stunning display of violence in one so small, but I mean as well the stunning abrogation -- or nonexecution -- of the contract between school and home.

This child represents for me just a particularly awful illustration of the utter lack of trust some parents have in the schools that do so much to determine their children's future. According to news reports, her mother had issued explicit orders that teachers weren't to touch her child, which tells you all you need to know about the degree of mistrust.

There has always been such mistrust, of course. I remember it from my own childhood, when certain kids seemed to come to school with chips on their shoulders -- placed there, apparently, by parents who themselves had endured awful experiences with schools. These children often fought (sometimes encouraged by parents whose advice was "Don't take nothin' off nobody"), frequently played unfairly and steadfastly refused to learn.

What is different now is the increase in the numbers of such parents and children and the extent of their disaffection from school and society.

And here we sit wondering how we would have controlled a 5-year-old child instead of asking ourselves how we can reconnect the disaffected among us -- even how we might mend the potentially tragic relationship between this child and her 31-year-old single mother.

My guess is that if a child bore scars of physical abuse, we'd move to intervene. But psychic wounds leave scars, too. Is there no way for the community to intervene to minimize them? Can't we provide counseling -- private counseling, not counseling that would be seen as serving the schools systems' interest -- for parent and child? Can't we look at ourselves (as so few of us did during my own childhood) and ask what godawful messages we are sending to kids whose parents are too poor, whose hair too nappy, skin too black, families too disreputable to warrant much respect from teachers -- or protection from the rest of us?

Can't we let this 5-year-old be our miner's canary -- a warning to us about the growing toxicity of our society?

We could do these things, of course. But we probably won't. We'll use this sad case to spur our own hobby horses: to extend civil liberties to children, to promote charter schools or vouchers, to argue that the police are racists, and to claim that teachers are either unprepared or underpaid.

And -- oh, yes -- for money. The mother whose child seems so obviously headed for trouble found herself a lawyer.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company