I was first exposed to this overused saying 30 years ago when I was making a sales call on a businessman who had penned it on a flip chart in his office. From the looks of the guy—a tired, paunchy and dispirited fellow—he had weathered plenty of experiences that should have made him stronger… but somehow I didn’t believe it. He looked like he was hanging on by a thread.
Seeing some of the horrors to which we see kids subjected, I find myself turning to this slogan time and again, hoping that it is true but fearing that it is not.
This morning a report has come over the Internet that a cop in Mount Sterling OH, a small town southwest of Columbus, shocked a 9-year-old boy with a Taser last week because the boy refused to go to school.
County prosecutor Steve Pronai said police were called to the boy’s father’s apartment because Michelle Perry said her son, Jared, wouldn’t go to school. Pronai said he doesn’t know much about the incident except that the situation escalated and officer Scott O’Neil used a Taser on the boy. The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation has been asked to investigate, the police chief has been suspended, and his entire police department has been disbanded. The Mount Sterling village council will meet tonight to decide its next steps.
Neighbors of the apartment where the incident took place said there have been issues with the 9-year-old, who is large for his age. Two neighbors said the boy’s father, and not his mother, lives at the apartment, but that the father has been hospitalized because he is gravely ill and disabled. They said the father had done the best he could in difficult circumstances.
This report appears on the heels of my having concluded some research into the stationing of police in the schools, a disturbing nationwide trend.
Most schools do not face any serious threat of violence, and police officers patrolling the schools are largely confronted with little more than boisterous or disrespectful childhood behavior. Ironically, the police presence in schools itself presents the greatest threat of danger and violence to kids. Too often, what we see is police overreaction and application of undue force to behavior that others would generally think of as just childish misbehavior, rather than law breaking.
• A security guard at one school in California broke the arm of a 16-year-old girl while arresting her because she left some crumbs on the floor after cleaning up some cake that she had spilled in the cafeteria.
• A 14-year-old girl in Allentown PA was tasered in the groin by a school security officer, even though she had put up her hands in the air to surrender.
• A police officer in San Mateo CA blasted a 7-year-old special education student in the face with pepper spray because he would not quit climbing on the furniture.
• In Connecticut, a 17-year-old boy was thrown to the floor and tasered five times because he was yelling at a cafeteria worker.
• In Austin TX, a 16-year-old boy with an IQ well below 70 was pepper-sprayed in the hallway because he didn’t understand what the police were saying. After he was sprayed, the boy began flailing his arms around in pain and, with his eyes closed, happened to hit one of the police officers. So they charged him with two counts of assault of a public servant and he is still awaiting trial. He could end up in prison.
• At the high school in Seguin TX, a 16-year-old boy was tasered after “he refused to cooperate” when asked why he wasn’t wearing his school identification tag. He then used “abusive language”. The police said that when an officer tried to arrest the boy, the boy tried to bite the policeman. The youth was charged with resisting arrest and criminal trespass even though the school acknowledges he is a student and was legitimately on the grounds.
Teachers in New York City say that the police stationed in schools often initiate and escalate problems with students. Over 59% of the NYC teachers questioned said that the police only sometimes treat students with respect, and 13% said they never or rarely treat students with respect. Over 18% of teachers said they have intervened on behalf of students in incidents involving the police. Over 42% of those teachers intervened because police were harassing or disrespecting students or were instigating or escalating a conflict. An overwhelming 64% of teachers said that armed NYPD officers in the school building never or rarely make students feel safe.
Data obtained from the NYPD by the American Civil Liberties Union and the New York Civil Liberties Union revealed that between 2005 and 2007 in-school police illegally arrested approximately 300 New York City public school students under the age of 16, some as young as 11 years old, for non-criminal violations in or on school grounds. (New York State law prohibits children younger than 16 from being arrested for minor, non-criminal violations like loitering because of the resulting stigma and trauma when youth are arrested.) Teachers reported that students are almost always traumatized when they are arrested and said that police officers will often engage in abusive language and treatment during an arrest—cursing, screaming, and humiliating students.
All this makes me wonder why anyone in their right mind would ever call in the police to enforce discipline on a child except in the rarest of circumstances? And why would anyone ever use child abuse as a substitute for discipline?
We hope that kids are resilient, that they will not be broken by abuse. We try taking comfort from wishful-thinking slogans like, “What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” But I say this is true in only a minority of cases. Only a small number of exceptional young people can overcome childhood abuse and be seen as having benefitted from it.
One such story has become mythic in our culture, a story which has famously been used to explain the particular genius of Ludwig van Beethoven.
Ludwig van Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany in 1770, the eldest of three children of Johann and Maria Magdalena van Beethoven. Beethoven was introduced to music from an early age. His first teacher was his father who was quite strict and, by many accounts, very abusive.
His father, a musician who liked to drink, taught Ludwig to play piano and violin. Young Ludwig was often pulled out of bed in the middle of the night and ordered to perform for his father’s drinking companions, suffering beatings if he protested. Ludwig was frequently beaten for failure to practice correctly. Once his mother protested at his father’s violent beatings, and she was beaten too. It is said that Ludwig resolved to become a great pianist so his mother would never be beaten again.
In this scene from the film Immortal Beloved, we see how the filmmakers theorize that Ludwig’s childhood beatings played a central role in creation of one of Beethoven’s greatest artistic triumphs, the Ninth Symphony:
And yet, a pivotal tragedy in Beethoven’s life is that he had lost his hearing—a setback that darkly colored his personality, relationships, and his whole adult life. One theory for Beethoven’s deafness is that during Ludwig’s childhood beatings, his father may have hit him near his ears which caused his hearing loss in his later years.
As great a genius as Beethoven was, how much greater would his potential and accomplishments have been had he not been deaf? How much greater would the potential of all children be if we did not abuse them in our homes and schools?
Groove of the Day