May 14, 2015

Should teachers throw books at students?



DO NOT THROW. (via Pixabay)

(DISCLAIMER: The short answer to the question in this headline is “no”. The long answer is below. None of the following names in this article are made up.)

Let us first admit that elementary and secondary education is wildly frustrating for everyone involved. Most children’s feelings about school, on a day-to-day basis, range from mild resentment to full-blown hatred. And their teachers (i.e. former children) don’t have it much easier; it’s on them to mold this motley dissatisfied crew into some sort of educable mass with only the limited resources and energy they are provided by their employer and their own resolve. Therefore, teachers often contain their frustration, and maintain order, with the dependable combo of regularly reinforced power dynamics and good old fashioned fear.

But sometimes that just isn’t enough, and that’s when books start flying.

KOB4 out of New Mexico recently reported this story:

A teacher at a Santa Fe middle school is accused of throwing books at her students last week, hitting at least one of them.

Santa Fe Public Schools confirmed that an English teacher is still working at De Vargas Middle School while she’s being investigated for what happened last Thursday.

An eighth-grader who talked to KOB Wednesday said the teacher hit her in the face when she threw a book.

I know what you’re thinking: “Is it a coincidence that this incident took place just days before the official cancellation of The Slap, American television’s only/finest depiction of corporal punishment and its true consequences?” Sadly, I don’t have an answer. The story continues:

Carmen Arrietta says her daughter had to leave after a fire drill Thursday in order to catch her bus.

“The bus only waits seven minutes for these children, so my daughter told the teacher that she was leaving the classroom because she had to catch the bus,” Arrietta said.

Arrietta claims the teacher yelled and threw a few books toward her daughter, Infinity Sanchez-Vigil.

“A few seconds later, I felt a book on my left cheek hit me and another book on my left side,” Sanchez-Vigil said. “It took all of me not to act on it.”

After Sanchez-Vigil immediately reported the assault to the school’s principal, who then allegedly attempted a quick and quiet resolution. Her dissatisfied mother promptly alerted New Mexico’s Children Youth and Families Department (CYFD) as well as  the Public Education Department and SFPD.

“I don’t think that kids…any kid should have to be assaulted by anybody, whether it’s a home or at school, anywhere. That teaches our kids that violence is okay,” Arrietta said.

Sanchez-Vigil admits she wasn’t injured by the book but says she wants the teacher fired.

But much like The Slap, this story doesn’t end with a child getting hit in the face. That’s just the beginning.

The accused teacher was subsequently revealed to be Marcy Slaughter, who has been nominated as one of Santa Fe’s most inspirational teachers. Once the news began to spread, Slaughter was quickly placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. But by then, it was too late. Slaughter was charged with two counts of felony child abuse, which each carry a maximum sentence of three years in prison.

The court appears to be taking Arrietta and Sanchez-Vigil’s side, further charging the school’s principal for his inaction. The Albuquerque Journal reported:

Principal Marc Ducharme, 49, has been charged in Magistrate Court with a count of obstruction of reporting or investigation of child abuse, for failing to report the book-throwing incident to police. The charge against Ducharme is a misdemeanor, but the teacher faces two felony counts.

A criminal complaint filed by a Santa Fe police officer says that when asked why he didn’t report the book-tossing to law enforcement, Ducharme said that “based on common school practice, if there is an altercation at the school where medical assistance is not required, then law enforcement is not contacted and the incident is handled internally.”

The Journal further reports that an additional student claims to have been hit by flying books during the attack.

The court’s actions indicate that while the school’s reflexive attempt to resolve this matter internally is understandable, it was also wildly stupid. However, this willful attempt to contain this incident points to an uncomfortable fact: this is not an isolated incident. Books and other missiles are being thrown in American schools nationwide, and it’s often handled just as poorly as it was here.

Richmond Heights, Ohio, December 2014: A high school teacher reports being hit in the back of the head with a flying book during class. After the principal arrives to interrogate the students, the teacher is informed that the identity of the culprit is “need to know” and no further action is taken.

Baltimore, Maryland, October 2014: A student and teacher begin fighting in the hallway, and are caught on camera. The fight was allegedly sparked after the student threw a notebook at her teacher. The student was arrested and charged with assault, and the teacher was placed on administrative leave.

Boynton Beach, Florida, January 2014: A music teacher is accused of throwing a shoe at a third-grader. The student is not injured, and the teacher disappears from the faculty soon after. It is unclear if she was fired or resigned.

Los Angeles, CA, August 2012: An elementary school teacher is accused of multiple assaults, including throwing a book at a student’s head in view of the entire class. No prior complaints are found in his file. He is fired.

Tulsa, Oklahoma, October 2011: A substitute teacher throws a book and curses in front of students, after which she quickly leaves school and is fired. No further information is provided.

Bangor, Pennsylvania, June 2011: Middle school teacher Traci Rumsey is accused of throwing a book at a male student and pushing him after he failed to follow her directions. She is charged with assault, disorderly conduct, and harassment. As a first-time offender, she successfully completes a diversion program rather than face jail time, and surrenders her teaching license. A profile of Rumsey that ran when she began teaching in the mid-90’s, which describes her as “know[ing] that any lesson straight from the pages of a textbook isn’t going to fly” becomes brutally ironic.

Maplewood, Missouri, May 2010: A teacher throws a pencil at a student. The student claims that it hit him in the face; the teacher claims it hit him in the shoulder. The student’s family files assault charges.

Brooklyn, New York, 2010: A high school teacher is struck by books thrown by a student. After the student is not disciplined, the teacher files an internal complaint. He alleges that the school began retaliating against him soon after the complaint, and ultimately fired him because of it. He attempts to sue the school on free speech grounds but his complaint is ruled unprotected speech by the court.

This doesn’t just happen in fiction. It doesn’t just happen overseas, like in England or Dubai. School safety in the post-Columbine age is a sacrosanct concept and while there is no one magic solution to school violence, it’s clear that an assault by a teacher or a student—whether it’s throwing a book or something much more serious—is an act that immediately triggers every emotional blinder and often results in administrative wagon-circling.

An environment where tensions run high and books are always close at hand will inevitably see conflict involving books. Yet the reason you don’t see a similar pattern of book-related violence in libraries or publishing houses (for the most part) is that the power relationships that define these institutions aren’t built on the same power imbalance between child and adult. What is clear is that teachers should not throw books or anything else at their students. Legally, physically, emotionally, psychologically, it’s not worth it. Throwing things TO them is fine, as long as the object doesn’t pose an obvious physical hazard.

Students who throw books at their teachers, however, aren’t blameless, and a teacher has the right to a safe work environment. However, there is a difference between a teacher and a student committing a violent act is that a student does so in an environment which is at least intended to address misbehavior rather than immediately jettison an offender (barring the presence of obtuse zero-tolerance policies or a police presence on campus specifically designed to shuttle violent students to jail). Whether a school is equipped to address this is another thing entirely, but if a student throws a book they fail themselves. When a teacher throws a book, they fail every single student they are expected to protect and be better than.

A teacher who ruptures the bond with their student by committing assault may do so in a moment of extreme frustration in which their childish instincts take over, or they may be a predator with a pattern of abuse, but either way they must absolutely face consequences. Unfortunately, how the school and/or the law defines assault and how those consequences are best implemented (being warehoused in rubber rooms, facing criminal charges, or simply disappearing from the faculty altogether) is not always clear. What’s clear is that once someone causes a book to become airborne in the classroom, nothing will be the same.


Liam O'Brien is the Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.