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Uproar over classroom scuffle reflects a profession under siege

At this point, it may not matter much to the public what actually went on in that Santa Monica High classroom where a teacher was recorded wrestling a student to the floor.

The 58-second cellphone clip recorded by a student went viral this week, turning the teacher and the student into symbols of what's wrong with public schools:

Defiant students. Overwhelmed teachers. Feckless administrators. Knee-jerk policies with no room for common sense.

"We're in the middle of a cultural change, and this case reflects that shift," said Shawn McMullen Chen, a high school teacher for 25 years. "The teaching environment feels more corporate now; very litigious, very careful, very impersonal...It's not easy to make the human connection you need to reach kids."

Investigators in Santa Monica are trying to sort out what led to the classroom tussle. Here's what we know so far:

Wrestling coach Mark Black was teaching science when he scolded a student for walking in and out of the classroom. Classmates suggested the trips had something to do with marijuana. When Black threatened to call security, the two wound up nose-to-nose and the student shoved the teacher. Black responded with a series of wrestling moves and restrained the student on the classroom floor.

When the cellphone video made the evening news, the student's family was offered support by the district's superintendent — who publicly chastised Black and placed the teacher on leave.

That prompted a public uproar that shows no sign of easing.

School officials have been flooded with emails. Social media erupted with expressions of indignation, hailing Black as a hero thrown under the bus by bureaucrats who don't recognize the value of good teachers.

This week, police arrested the student, Blair Moore, 18. He's been charged with possessing marijuana and a weapon (a box cutter) on campus, and threatening and using "force or violence against a school employee" — all misdemeanors.

That turned up the heat among the teacher's supporters. Hundreds have pledged to show up Sunday for a Santa Monica rally dubbed "Community Peace Gathering celebrating Mark Black and all teachers who step up for their students." Almost 23,000 have "liked" a "We Support Coach Black" Facebook page, created by former students.

"What was he going to do, turn his back?" posted the mother of a junior at the school. "Brave man...I feel my son is in good hands if all the teachers are like him."

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Black is a legend at Santa Monica High — a revered wrestling coach, beloved teacher and father figure to students.

But the outsized support, from people across the country and around the world, probably has less to do with Black's history than with his new maverick status — the teacher who took a stand that preserved his authority in the classroom.

The incident has parents worked up; it's an unsettling peek behind closed doors on a big urban campus. No one wants their child in a classroom where teachers and students are apt to wind up rolling around on the floor.

But teachers told me they have few options to deal with disruptive students: You call security and hope help arrives before the disruption robs students of too much learning time or someone in class gets hurt.

They resent the perception that teachers are to blame for classroom management problems; that if they're skilled in keeping students engaged, no one will act up.

"Teaching has a lot more gray than most people understand," said Chen, an English teacher at Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach. "You can have 17 kids who really want to do great things, and five or six who act out. You want an open, collaborative class. You don't want to be too strict... It's a tough tightrope to walk."

Many public schools — including Los Angeles Unified campuses — aren't allowed to suspend students anymore for what's considered "willful defiance."

"You'll send a kid to the office, the administrators don't want to deal with it, they send him back to class," Chen said. That's undermines teachers and destabilizes their classes.

For teachers, the public support for Black feels like vindication.

"It's an indication," Chen said, "that there is some possibility the public really does understand what a difficult job teaching is."

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I understand Supt. Sandra Lyon's gut reaction. The video of the classroom struggle is alarming to watch. But just as alarming is the idea of a student peddling weed in class.

For the district superintendent to respond to one and ignore the other suggests the depth of the problem.

The official investigation into what happened is supposed to wrap up before spring break ends next week. But the public discussion ought to continue, and look at the broader issues the incident may reveal:

What does the groundswell of support for Black say about our expectations of public schools? Are teachers equipped to manage the fallout of social issues that play out in their classrooms? How do we keep vulnerable students from drifting off track?

Moore was on the baseball and track teams as a sophomore; two years later he's allegedly carrying drugs in his backpack. Did something go wrong that school officials should have noticed and could have attended to?

The superintendent has backed off her original stance, which many found offensive. But she ought to explain why she leapt to the presumption that the teacher was the villain.

For many of us, this goes beyond whether the teacher should have resorted to wrestling moves to handle a student challenge. It's about scapegoating a profession that's under siege right now.

We need to train and trust teachers to manage their classrooms — so students can focus on learning, not disturbances that call for cellphone cameras.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

Twitter: @SandyBanksLAT

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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