2009-2010 (Before new approach)
* 798 suspensions (days students were out of school)
* 50 expulsions
* 600 written referrals
2010-2011 (After new approach)
* 135 suspensions (days students were out of school)
* 30 expulsions
* 320 written referrals
Wow, this school in Washington saw some real improvements with whatever this new policy is that they were trying. 30 expulsions in a year might still sound like a lot, but this is an “alternative” school that particularly seems to deal with troubled kids – some of the students themselves describe the place as a “dumping ground” for kids nobody really cares about.
But this new thing the principal’s doing seems to be doing a great job of keeping them in line. I guess really cracking down on these over-confident, disrespectful teens and their unacceptable behaviour started getting through to them. If you’re stern enough, and make it clear who’s in charge and what kind of behaviour won’t be tolerated, they’ll stop acting like they can get away with anything, and you’ll have far fewer disciplinary problems once the majority have been subdued into meek subservience.
Oh, wait, no. The complete opposite of that.
It turns out, bizarrely enough, that if someone’s angry and frustrated with their situation, and has been dealt a crappy hand by life in general, and they express their anger in a burst of shouting and swearing, and you try to make them stop acting that way by shouting even louder, hurling invective back at them, and punishing them at the first sign of insurrection… then you’re not so likely to win them over to your way of seeing things. Chances are you’ll just piss them off even more and make them keep shouting at you.
And this fairly basic fact of human psychology isn’t magically different just because that person isn’t 18 years old yet.
A lot of this comes back to the fundamental attribution error, and a tragically widespread neglect of compassion as a virtue even in circumstances where it might be a bit difficult. It might be less challenging to respond to some uppity kid swearing and raging by taking a dislike to him, putting him down as a bad sort. But very few among us has never had an experience of losing their temper, and we all know that when it happened to us, there was some understandable reason for it. It might not have been a good reason, and we might not be proud now of the way we acted, but it doesn’t mean we’re bad people just because we got a bit angry that one time. Maybe we were just frustrated by things going on in our lives, and we didn’t deal with it very well.
Well, the principal and teachers at this school have been running with the radical idea that young people, too, are human beings with complex feelings and reasons for their behaviours, who may also have frustrating shit to deal with and be ill equipped to handle it appropriately all the time. And it’s working. The kids are learning perhaps the most important thing school can teach them. They’re being given a chance to experience other ways of interacting with people, and finding out that, if you can control your anger, think things through that are bothering you, and trust people who have the chance to help you, it can work.
Complex trauma ain’t pretty.
It’s when your dad’s in prison AND your mom’s a meth addict AND she’s too drugged out to move in the mornings, so you’ve got to take care of your little brother, get him fed and off to school, AND you’re despairing about being evicted for the third time because she hasn’t paid the rent and the landlord’s screaming at you to do something.
Or your dad’s a raging alcoholic AND he beat the crap out of your mom again last night AND the cops came and took him away at 2 a.m. AND the EMTs took your mom to the hospital and you hardly slept a wink and you’re frantic with worry because you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you’ve got to stay cool or otherwise you’ll have a complete meltdown.
Or your fat step-dad’s sneaking into your bed in the middle of the night AND you’re too terrified to move because he says if you say anything he’ll kill you and your sister and your mom, who’s depressed AND doesn’t talk much anyway.
Teens who live with complex trauma are walking post-traumatic stress time bombs, says Turner. They teeter through their days. The smallest incident can push them into a full-blown meltdown. Some kids run away. Some explode in rage. Some just mentally check out.
So, yeah. You could treat people who’ve been through stuff like that with zero tolerance and shout back at them to do what they’re told right now or you’ll throw them out and it’ll be their own fault.
Or you could try and help.
(And don’t even get me fucking started on prisons.)