So, the Thousand Oaks shooter was described as a “ticking time bomb” by high school faculty. Let me tell you why that’s not a surprise.
Teachers like me aren’t licensed psychiatrists or psychologists, but we are on the front lines with around 150 kids each year, and, depending on our school, we can be in daily interaction with over 2,000 kids. We see things, and we know things. We should be listened to.
Ask any teacher, and he or she will tell you about that kid. The kid who was spooky. The kid who wasn’t just weird but disturbing. We may not see them every year, and they may not be in our classrooms, but they brush by us in the hallways. We overhear what they say in the lunchroom. We know that our other students, and even our colleagues, are scared of them.
It’s the kid who gouges out the crotch of the picture of the girl on the front of his workbook until there’s only a tattered hole left. It’s the kid who mutters racial slurs. It’s the kid who calls his female classmates bitches and complains about how they’re all a bunch of cock teases. It’s the kid who talks about hurting animals. It’s the kid who gets belligerent and hostile when told that he can’t read Mein Kampf instead of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s the kid who says he wants to kill everyone or himself, or both. Or maybe it’s just the kid who sets off his teachers’ internal alarms without any overt reasons.
Those internal alarms are pretty spot-on in my experience, so what happens when teachers report what they see, hear, or feel? A lot of times, we’re told that we’re overreacting. That what we know is not normal is just a part of the maturation process of teenagers. That we need to back off before we ruin a kid’s life with our unsubstantiated speculations.
But here’s the thing…these kids are ruining other kids’ lives. At what point does one kid’s right to be in school trump the other kids’ rights who are scared to be around him? Do we act when we hear him make threats? Do we act when we hear him planning? Do we act when we see acts of sexual aggression or violence? It should be all of the above, right?
I’ve known teachers and have been the teacher who has reported disturbing behavior only to be told that there was nothing to be done. Teachers have reported students who have threatened them, only to have the kids laughingly return to the same period on the same day they were taken out of class. We are told to calm down, that we need to more effectively differentiate instruction to meet the needs of all of our students. Even the ones who tell us they hope we die.
And please know that when a fifteen or sixteen year-old man-child tells me he hopes I die, I believe him.
If a kid is really disturbed, how can getting him help be damaging? Sure, the parents may think there’s a stigma associated with their son being investigated, but I’d prefer that wounded pride to the damage that can be caused when a truly disturbed child is left unchecked.
Part of the issue, a big part, is that there aren’t really any great options to offer kids who show signs of being unable to function in society and may be violent. I absolutely believe that education can save a kid’s life and that having an opportunity to go to school is a right that is sacred for all kids, but once it becomes clear that a specific student’s presence in school is to the detriment of other kids, we need to have better options.
Expulsion and either online education in which the student is further removed from socialization opportunities or an alternative placement in which the entire student body is made up of kids who are experiencing problems in a traditional school are not great options. It would make sense to mandate psychological assessment and some kind of counseling or other treatment, but who’s going to provide it when districts are so strapped that teachers are buying their own copy paper?
I and many other teachers have made the decisions to amp up our efforts instead of calming down and carrying on. We are battling the influences our students get from the online rabbit holes that so many teenagers fall into, and we are trying to catch the damage early. We’re telling students that they cannot and will not use ethnic, racial, religious, or gender slurs. “That’s just how we talk,” I was recently told. My response? Not in my classroom.
I am consistently surprised that there are still people who differentiate between calling a girl a dehumanizing slur and treating her like she’s less than human. Who think calling someone the n-word doesn’t make them racist.
There are certainly levels of hatred, violence, and aggression, but there are common starting points, and teachers see them. We are the ones who hear the bombs ticking. As long as we keep being disregarded, the explosions will keep rolling.