Holding the Lesson Hostage

I've got students who are like this guy--though he wears a much cooler hat than they do.

All right, Ammon, you had your turn to say whatever the hell it was you wanted to say. I realize it makes sense to you and some tiny fraction of the rest of the country. Now can we please get back to what we were doing before you grabbed the spotlight?

Two or three times a week, I have to tell a student something very much like what you just read. For reasons too complicated for me, their classroom teachers, their parents, the administrators responsible for discipline at our school, or any of their classmates, these individuals feel the need to make music class be all about them. They talk loudly, bang on drums (it's music class), abuse instruments, roam around the gym shouting (yes, due to a stuffed-to-overflowing school building, I teach grades 3-5 in the gym), are utterly unafraid of me calling an administrator to come and get them, care not a bit about the referrals I'm supposed to write whenever this happens, the call home I'll make after school to their parents, the poor grade they'll receive because the only time they spend in their-one half-hour-a-week of music is doing everything they can to force me and the administrators to remove them. When I'm lucky enough to get one of those administrators to come and do just that, the rest of the class breathes easier and we salvage a few minutes of instructional time.

As an attention-getting ploy, this behavior works brilliantly: these kids get their entire class focusing on them for as long as they're doing what they do. Then they get one-on-one attention from the administrator. It's not positive attention--any popularity they may initially gain from clowning around is quickly lost as their classmates come to resent losing so much of their one half hour of music class per week to yet another display of over-the-top rudeness. And when it happens week after week, and their class falls further and further behind the rest of the grade due to the behavior, these children succeed only in isolating themselves from the one community that could help them deal with whatever is causing them to act out.

My district has bought into the restorative justice model of school discipline. It's based on the idea that removing students from class sets them up to be removed from society in general--which, once they're adults, means incarcerating them. Restorative justice seeks to bring these students back into the classroom community where they can make reparations to heal the damage they've done. In a home room, this makes ample sense: having a community circle to talk over what happened, and how to keep it from happening again, builds relational skills for every student in the class. Of course, students spend most of their time throughout the school day in home room, with a considerable portion of that time set aside for silent reading, so a twenty minute talking circle, facilitated by the school's restorative justice administrator, doesn't kill that much instructional time.

Specials, on the other hand--music, PE, library, technology--happen once a week for most classes. They're thirty minutes long. Between the time taken up by the initial disruption and the time it takes to talk it out, that's an entire week's worth of instruction lost to solving one student's issue. And when that issue repeats week after week--because the behavior in question is specific to music, and there's a whole week between classes to forget whatever was learned during that community time--we might as well not be having music at all.

Thankfully, this year's administrators seem to realize that applying the same band-aid again and again to a wound that refuses to heal is a kind of insanity, and are beginning to consider the possibility that some students may need not to participate in music. Yes, this is like a mini-suspension. Perhaps we can set up a separate class for the disrupters, time when I can work with them in isolation, giving them the more individualized attention they seem to crave but in an instructional, rather than a disciplinary, setting.

Which brings me to Ammon Bundy.

This morning, it struck me that Ammon Bundy and his Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupying club are engaged in a large-scale version of what the disrupters do in my music classes: they've taken a public facility hostage, making it impossible for other citizens to use that facility for the educational and enrichment purposes for which it is intended. They've also blocked the professionals who maintain the facility from doing that work. Finally, they're vandalizing the facility, knocking down fences, cutting roads, defacing signs, and apparently taking joy rides on the heavy equipment stored there for maintenance purposes. They're behaving, in other words, like fifth grade high flyers, commandeering the mission of the refuge and making it be all about them. Unlike the fifth graders, these disrupters are heavily armed.

Oh, they've got a list of demands, but they're paradoxical and even less attainable than those made by Hans Gruber in Die Hard. They boil down to the federal government ceding its authority over public lands to private interests so they can exploit them as they see fit--as well as waiving the sentences of two convicted arsonists who burned hundreds of acres of national forest.

So what about the authorities? Why isn't the principal stepping in to remove these tantruming middle-aged toddlers from class, so the lesson can continue?

In this case, the authorities in question are the local police and the FBI, who are taking a wait-and-see approach to the occupation, hoping, perhaps, that as their supplies run low and they get bored, the disrupters will drift away until Ammon Bundy is left by himself, pouting in a corner. It's how disrupters were dealt with--or, rather, ignored--by my school district last year, when we were told to use restorative justice principles, but given no training or personnel to make them work. They're being left to their own devices, getting the attention they want from the media, facing no apparent consequences in the immediate future (though I assume there will be arrests eventually), and being allowed to continue defiling the public land they're occupying.

I'm not saying they should go in with guns blazing, overwhelming these ranchers with the awesome firepower that even local cops now have available to them. Such an action would succeed in taking the refuge back, but would also confirm all Ammon Bundy's ramblings about the tyranny of the federal government, while very likely turning him and his compatriots into martyrs, inspiring others in their silly movement to engage in far more lethal acts of terrorism.

Instead, I'd much rather a stern message was delivered, something along these lines:

We see that you're upset, and that you are passionate about your complaint. However, what you're doing is unfair to the American public, who are the true owners of this facility. We cannot grant your requests, which are in violation of the Constitution and laws of the United States; and your continued presence at this facility is felonious, and will lead to consequences that may include fines, forfeiture of property to pay those fines, and imprisonment. You are directed to surrender immediately.

Accompanying this message, two actions would be taken: blocking all roads leading into the refuge from both supplies and the press; and cutting power to the buildings. It's cold on the high desert in January, and it's not going to warm up for at least two months. Losing comfort and publicity, the occupiers are going to wonder why they're bothering to continuing pressing their unachievable demands.

That's going to lead to attrition. Whether they give up individually or in groups, it's essential they're held accountable once they leave the refuge. However, jail time seems a far less useful reparation than community service--specifically, repairing the damage they've done. Habitat restoration is an essential part of the missions of the Bureau of Land Management, the National Forest Service, and the National Park Service. Put these refuge abusers to work maintaining trails, shoring up stream banks damaged by cattle, replanting trees in forests burned down by careless and malicious ranchers, filling in abandoned mine shafts, setting right all the harm done to wild America by greedy Americans like themselves. In the process, perhaps they'll discover within themselves an appreciation for true stewardship of the land--which would be the most restorative justice of all.


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