No doubt, the situation was “alarming,” as the school superintendent described it, and deeply upsetting to the students who witnessed it.
A well-regarded wrestling coach and science teacher at Santa Monica High School got into an altercation Friday with a male student in his classroom. A video shot by a student on a cellphone, and broadcast by KTLA-TV showed the teacher making some wrestling moves, like lifting the student’s leg to unbalance him, before the teacher pinned the student by the legs on the floor. There was no punching, no kicking, no screaming. Once the pair stopped, the teacher seemed simply to be restraining the student.
So what on earth happened?
And did the school district’s superintendent act too hastily when she suspended the teacher before an investigation had even taken place, offering words of support to the student, who has not been identified, and his family?
Santa Monica-Malibu School District board member Oscar de la Torre told my colleague Matt Stevens that the incident arose from a conflict over drugs. That would seem to bolster some of the rumors being passed around by students that the boy in question was carrying contraband on campus.
But did he deserve to be wrestled across a classroom and to the ground?
Supt. Sandra Lyon didn’t think so. On Friday afternoon, she sent an email to the school community, forwarded to me by a parent of a Samohi junior:
"Today, a deeply disturbing incident involving a teacher and student occurred in a classroom at Santa Monica High School, resulting in the Santa Monica Police Department being called to the campus. A number of videos capturing at least a portion of the incident are circulating, and I can tell you that what I witnessed on one of those videos is utterly alarming.
We have been in contact with the student’s family, and we will work with them to offer the support that they may need. I am grateful that there is no reported serious physical harm to students or teachers, but that neither dismisses the severity of this situation nor my commitment to gather all the facts and make sure the proper actions are taken.
Until the investigation is complete, we will not have all the details that led up to this incident; nevertheless, based on the what I have viewed, the kind of physical restraint used by the teacher is unacceptable. I have placed the teacher on leave pending the outcome of an independent investigation.
As a parent, I know that we want our children to be safe at school. This is a fundamental expectation that I honor and respect. I am committed to ensure that any disciplinary action taken in this matter is based on facts, the law and all students’ right to a safe learning environment."
Lyon's note struck many as blaming the wrong party. Was she wrong to give the student the benefit of the doubt? That’s the sentiment expressed on the “We Support Coach Black” Facebook page, which had more than 3,000 “likes” by late Saturday afternoon.
Parents, teachers and students commenting on that page say Black is the one who needs support, not the student.
“If you had a child in this class and another student was selling drug[s] in clear view, you would want any teacher to do what Mark Black did,” wrote Steve Martinez, who identifies himself on Facebook as a former Santa Monica-Malibu District administrator. “He did in fact try to resolve this situation peacefully by asking the student to turn over the drugs to him. The student resisted and became aggressive … Support this great teacher and wonderful person. He needs us at this time.”
And here's what a former student and Samohi wrestler wrote in tribute on Facebook: “You should all know that I lost my father when I was quite young. Black has been like a second father to me, just as he has to hundreds of other kids throughout the years. He's kept kids off the streets, gotten others into college, and shaped the lives of so many others throughout his long service to this community. When you continue to hear about this story, and hear people try to defend the student or attack Coach Black, I beg of you to speak out against their false accusations.”
Well, we don’t know what’s a false accusation yet and what is not. Black sounds like a fine coach and human being. It's hard to watch an adult and a teenager get into a physical tangle like that. Certainly, we expect the adults in our classrooms to answer to a higher standard than the teenagers.
Still, as a parent, I have to admit I got a little shiver of satisfaction knowing that a teacher who just happens to be a wrestler was able to physically subdue a student who may have been flagrantly violating the rules.
Students have the right to learn in drug-free classrooms. And I don’t care how a kid treats his parents, but when he gets to school he needs to show his teachers respect. A student flashing drugs in the classroom is a provocation that no teacher should ignore.
We don’t know yet exactly what happened in that Santa Monica High School classroom on Friday.
But I have a feeling when it’s all over, Coach Black is going to be considered a hero to exasperated teachers everywhere.