Could this be a watershed moment for teachers who take a stand against defiant students?
We can’t read too much into the chain of events that began Friday morning in a Santa Monica High School science classroom, when a physical tangle between a 60-year-old science teacher and an 18-year-old student was captured on a cellphone camera.
But we can know this: A community is up in arms about how the teacher, a beloved wrestling coach, was treated--first by his student, then by his boss.
On Friday evening in an email, Santa Monica-Malibu Superintendent Sandra Lyon said the video was “utterly alarming” and seemed to place blame on the teacher, Mark Black, for the altercation in his classroom.
A little over a day later, on Saturday evening, she apologized.
Acknowledging the “great anger” her statement had unleashed, Lyon said she understood the concern that she had pre-judged Black before she had investigated, and that she failed to address the conduct of “one or more” students involved in the altercation.
“I apologize that my comments focused solely on the message that teachers should not physically engage when disciplining or intervening without underscoring that we need to obtain all the details leading up to this situation before we reach conclusions,” Lyon wrote.
That didn’t do much to placate Black’s supporters.
By Monday morning, the Facebook page “We Support Coach Black of Samohi” had garnered more than 10,000 “likes.” (That’s more than 10% of the population of the city of Santa Monica, and more than three times the number of students at the school.)
It is still unclear exactly what happened Friday morning in Black’s class. When the 58-second video begins, the confrontation was already in progress. A student shoves Black against a table, then Black executes a series of wrestling moves to subdue the student, who ends up sitting on the floor, as Black holds his legs. While they are in that position, the student pushes against Black’s head, but does not strike him.
A person who spoke to Black after the incident told me the student kept stepping out of the classroom into the hallway with marijuana, and that Black had asked him three times to knock it off. After the third time, this person said, the coach told the student he was calling security, prompting the student to push Black. At some point, the coach was wounded by something sharp. After the video ends, this person also said, the coach was attacked by a second student.
Daniel Jacobs, 32, a 1999 Santa Monica High School graduate who runs a Silicon Valley startup called Placebo Effect, was so upset by Lyon’s first statement that he started a change.org petition demanding she apologize. (Another former student, Timothy Conley, started a similar petition asking for the reinstatement of Black, who is on paid administrative leave. His petition has garnered more than 4,000 signatures.)
“I’ve never met a better or more kindhearted man in my life,” said Jacobs, who makes a point of visiting Black every time he returns to Santa Monica. He said the 60-year-old coach, who is still competing as a veteran wrestler, executed a simple series of wrestling moves aimed at immobilizing the student.
Jacobs saw the video and felt it showed that Black pushed the student backward, then grabbed his right arm with both hands and tried to push it across the student’s body to prevent him from throwing a punch.
“My sense of what was happening was he was trying to neutralize a threat,” said Jacobs. “That meant get the kid in a position where he can’t move until someone can come and do something about it.”
Today, the Santa Monica Police Department said it had arrested two students, 18 and 16, on Friday.
The 18-year-old, Blair Moore, was arrested on suspicion of threatening a school official, battery against a school employee, possession of a weapon on a school campus (a box cutter) and possession of marijuana on school grounds. He is due in court Tuesday.
According to the 2012 Santa Monica High School yearbook, Moore played junior varsity baseball and was on the track team when he was a sophomore. The 2013 yearbook did not list him on any teams.
The 16-year-old was arrested on suspicion of battery against a school employee. He does not have a court date yet.
Black was not arrested.
So we can assume that the coach got it right, and the superintendent got it very, very wrong.