In the Wake of Parkland: a Love Letter to my Students

February 15, 2018

Dear Students,

I set out yesterday to write you a Valentine’s Day letter, to accompany the chocolate I have shoved at you all week. However, in the wake of yet another school shooting, I lacked adequate words, and a simple letter about your greatness was the wrong tone.

Don’t read me wrong: you are great. As many of you have said (correctly) over the past 10 years, you are the children I didn’t birth. You live here; sometimes it feels like I do, too.  I’ve taught grades 1 through 12. I have kissed your owies. I have counseled your broken hearts. I’ve covered puberty and sexuality education; you’ve given me pink eye and strep throat. We’ve seen each other through migraines, bronchitis, linguistic milestones, graduations, hailstorms, and power outages. Your writing and artwork have been astounding and heartbreaking.

You are amazing.

Over the past 10 years, our school has changed a lot. We lock more doors, we have better alert systems. The teachers wear badges. Sometimes we practice fire evacuations.

Or the dreaded lockdown.

My worst nightmare as a teacher is a lockdown.

Last night, I cried when NPR’s Ari Shapiro interviewed students from Parkland. One of them talked about a staff member shoving students into a closet to protect them from the shooter.

A month ago, I woke up sobbing, and my boyfriend held me while I shook. I’d dreamed about a former student coming back with a gun. Through my tears, I said, “I couldn’t save them. I couldn’t get the door open. I couldn’t get to my kids.” He comforted me and said, “It’s just a dream. You’re okay.”

It isn’t just a dream. Parkland isn’t a dream. Sandy Hook wasn’t a dream. Columbine wasn’t a dream.

Every teacher has students that need extra: extra love, attention, concern, support. We all have someone whose needs are above our training. Maybe not this year. But if we have been teaching long enough, we have taught a student who needed more than we thought we had to give.

My students, I love you. I love you when you are sick, when you are demanding, when you are puzzling. I love you when you are triumphant.

I love you when you are in danger. I will throw you in a closet, behind a bookshelf, under my self if it is necessary.

I love you if you are dangerous, and I am sorry I cannot do enough for you. I am painfully aware of this fact. We strive to provide the resources for you; I hope it is enough, on time, something.

My dear, dear students… I love you.

Your Elle


A Tale of Two Idahos… actually, it’s the same Idaho

Content note: gun violence, police violence, police-involved shooting, intersection of race and disability, accidental shooting, human death, animal death

Idaho has made a lot of headlines in the last few years.

During the 2014 legislative session, Idaho lawmakers made us the 7th state to approve conceal carry on college campuses, despite vocal opposition from nearly every stakeholder, and the failure of the same bill in 2011.

In September 2014 the first month of the first semester the law was in effect, a professor shot himself in the foot while teaching on one of our university campuses.

In December, a two-year-old child accidentally shot and killed his mother with a concealed handgun while rummaging in her purse.

I’m starting to see a pattern here.

On Friday, The Guardian ran a lengthy piece on two officer-involved shootings in northern Idaho. From the article:

The first victim was Jeanetta Riley, a troubled 35-year-old pregnant woman, shot dead by police as she brandished a knife outside a hospital in the town of Sandpoint. Her death barely ruffled the tight-knit rural community, which mostly backed the officers, who were cleared of wrongdoing before the case was closed.

The second shooting, in nearby Coeur d’Alene, sparked uproar. There were rallies, protests, sinister threats against the officer responsible, and a viral campaign that spread well beyond the town and drew an apology from the mayor. The killing was ruled unjustified, and the police chief introduced new training for his officers.

The victim of the second shooting: a dog named Arfee.

I live in southern Idaho, a nine-hour drive from Coeur d’Alene. Just 10 minutes away in the town of Filer, an officer shot a dog last year. There was outrage then, too. When the officer was returned to duty, outraged citizens started a petition to get the mayor recalled. Nothing came of the petitions, but they added an eight-hour training course for dealing with dogs.

In the comments surrounding the stories I linked above, a pattern emerges: It was the professor’s fault he got shot–he must have been carrying his gun unsafely. It was the mother’s fault she got shot; her gun was stored in her purse unsafely. Jeanetta Riley deserved to get shot–she was on drugs and she didn’t comply with police directives.

In other responses, to the other stories, a second pattern, another Idaho, emerges: OH MY GOD WHO WOULD SHOOT A DOG?!

These are the comments and messages and conversations I’ve heard over the past seven years: If you respect guns, you’ll be fine. If you raise your kids around guns, they will have a healthy respect of guns. And, likewise, if you listen to the police, you’ll be fine. Everything boils down to this: Just follow the rules, and you won’t get hurt. It follows that if you get hurt (or killed) then you did not follow the rules, the blame falls squarely on you, and you can expect little sympathy. The fact that dogs elicit more sympathy, empathy, and outrage than human lives should tell us that something is wrong with that lens. The fact that Arfee’s owner got an $80,000 settlement, while Jeanetta Riley’s family have not even received an apology, should tell us something is wrong with our system.

The incidents with the dog in Coeur d’Alene and the dog in Filer each prompted targeted training for officers handling potentially aggressive dogs. That is reasonable training to have. The officers also need training in recognizing and deescalating a crisis situation with a person with a mental illness or psychiatric disability. Their department provides it, but neither officer had taken it. That is necessary training to have.

I would like to submit another story for your consideration: In December, police in Twin Falls, Idaho, arrested Randy Scott Hill after a 25-hour standoff, during which time Hill brandished a knife, yelled at police, exited and reentered his home, threw the negotiation phone back at the police, waved a hammer around. No one was injured or killed.

Hill, a white male, survived his encounter with police after they put in 25 hours of patient attempts. Riley, a Native American female, died as a result of her encounter with police after only 15 seconds. Both reportedly have a history of disability and violent behavior; for Riley, the intersection of race with psychiatric disability, as has been well-documented by others, proved fatal.

This is the Cult of Compliance. And here, in Idaho, all of that is wrapped up in the added layer of gun saturation.

Last month, two local schools (a mile from my house) were placed on a three-hour lockdown because a man was walking down the street with two firearms. Police inquiry revealed he was simply doing just that: walking down the street with two firearms. He was within his legal rights to do so. A commenter on the newspaper’s website wrote, I support open carry and I support this kind of response from our educational and law enforcement leaders. This is why Idaho is great. 

The day after the Veronica Rutledge was killed by her 2-year-old in Wal-Mart, the Washington Post wrote a piece of Idaho conceal carry apologetics to indicate that this was so much about guns that it wasn’t about guns:

“In Idaho, we don’t have to worry about a lot of crime and things like that,” [Sandow] said. “And to see someone with a gun isn’t bizarre. [Veronica] wasn’t carrying a gun because she felt unsafe. She was carrying a gun because she was raised around guns. This was just a horrible accident.”

This is the Cult of Compliance: the energy and logical acrobatics required to maintain status quo.

“Swatting is acceptable in certain situations”

I’ve written this blog post four times. I’ve written it angry, discouraged, royally pissed off, and totally deflated. I’m not sure what mood I am experiencing at the moment. It’s a mix of tired and something.

The other day, a friend posted an article about using restorative practices rather than zero-tolerance policies to address behavioral infractions, thus cutting off the flow to the school-to-prison pipeline. I was very interested in this article, as I have been following the writings of David Perry as he develops and shares his essays and posts on the Cult of Compliance, which he explains thusly:

Here’s some of the thinking behind the “cult” language. I could have said a culture of compliance, or a culture that doesn’t accept non-compliance, or any number of other ways of framing the problem. Cult, though, implies an unthinking adherence to an idea, principle, group, prophet or deity that you must venerate at all costs. To me, in our police culture but also our American culture more broadly, we venerate compliance.  It’s not just the police to blame, but all of us who accept the “he/she didn’t comply” rationale in any given case. (emphasis in original) (source)

I should have known not to get involved in a comment discussion; I end up frustrated and jaded and I smash my face on the keyboard. The first three comments made it clear that Jerkface McPoopyhead (not the original poster) had either not read the article or did not comprehend the article he’d read. He first asked the original poster what the alternative should be (even though the entire article was about the alternative: restorative policies. He must have only read the headline). He issued quite a missive about how sending kids to the principal doesn’t work and suspension is the only way to punish both the kids and their parents. He peppered his comments with references to his experiences in law enforcement, which made the leap from Cult of Compliance (as related to police) to the Cult of Compliance in schools an easy one to make.

I can’t break his arguments down into component parts; it was my first big reminder that just as spheres of oppression intersect, so do spheres of prejudice. Very rarely is someone just racist or just sexist. Mr. McPoopyhead said the school-to-prison pipeline doesn’t exist because rules are not actually enforced unfairly. Blacks are disproportionately represented in the discipline statistics because they disproportionately break the rules. The reason is they all come from broken families, because the black family unit is deteriorating, because black welfare mothers kick the men out so they can collect more benefits. And everyone knows that fathers (men) are the only people who can provide any kind of structure for children and teens, and, by extension, for society. See? Gender essentialism and racism all wrapped up in one little package. I can’t extract one from the other. It’s ampersandwiched bigotry, coming to you live on Facebook.

I wanted to let it go. But I couldn’t. As an ally, I cannot remain silent if I see racism in action. Moreover, he said that things were better back when we could swat kids on the backside. He held himself up as an example of a kid who knew how to behave because of corporal punishment. I put on my typing gloves.

The conversation was like playing Calvinball, except with an adult with a who is going to become a teacher some day.

I started small: “Swatting and spanking children is not an option. Please stop holding it up as the reason you turned into a well-adjusted adult.” We should not need to have that conversation, but I will continue having it, even as every person who uses such an argument loses all credibility with me.

Physical discipline damages children. It does. There is mounds of evidence to support that assertion. If we are going to be discussing the problems with school culture, or with school discipline, or with the preschool-to-prison pipeline (which is a real thing, people), I feel like we need to at least have this recognition in common. We need to at least be on the same page and agree that physical punishment does not belong in our schools.

And yet, I found myself staring his reply in the face: “Swatting is acceptable in certain situations.” On the same day I read a new report that “minority children, and disabled children, make up the largest majority of children paddled by their teachers.”


Take note of the recent heavy press given to police brutality, aggression, excessive force. Call it what you will, but we have a problem. There is an underlying belief that some people will only respond to force. That some people just have it coming. That a physical response is necessary for failing to comply with verbal directives given by a school resource officer, or a police officer, or off-duty deputies. Because this is where it starts.

The more I see it, the more I cannot ignore it. So when someone asserts that black children and teens are more inherently deviant, and that swatting is acceptable, I will engage. Because minority children and children with disabilities are disproportionately represented on the receiving end of corporal punishment and zero-tolerance policies, and we should be seeking restorative practices for all our students. Because the #CultofCompliance depends upon early adoption, early indoctrination. The #CultofCompliance depends upon the silence of bystanders to maintain its foothold in our schools and in our police stations.

And I will not be silent.

Objectification and consent among children

Several of my friends have posted the now-viral video of the young Italian boys and their response to violence against a peer:

Many descriptions I’ve read have used words like “refreshing” or “heartwarming” to describe the young children’s reactions to the directive to slap the girl, named Martina, whom they have just met. Neither of these words came to my mind at any point during the video.

My thoughts:

a) The boys were asked what they liked about Martina. Presumably, none of them had met prior to the video, so the boys chose physical attributes: eyes, hair, all of her. One boy professed his desire to be her boyfriend, based solely on her looks. This may seem sweet because they are kids, but this introduction reinforces the notion that a woman’s most important attributes are those that can easily be seen. In a word: objectification.

ii) The boys are initially reluctant to caress Martina, but all of them follow through on the directive. None of them asked the girl if it was alright to touch her arm or (more intimately) her face. Seeing as sexual assault and street harassment are ongoing problems around the world, consent is a concept it is never too early to address. I teach my students to ask before every hug from a peer, before offering a helping hand with a walker or a wheelchair. I challenge parents who share and post this video to have an age-appropriate conversation with their children about whether or not it was appropriate for the boys to touch the girl on the face without her permission (hint: it isn’t).

3) Several of the boys refuse to hit Martina simply because she is a girl. This may seem noble, but it serves to reinforce, rather than deconstruct, gender stereotypes. One boy says he is against violence; another says that Jesus doesn’t want us to hit others. These two boys demonstrate at least a basic generalized aversion to violence against all people, but the other boys reassert their masculinity in the way they refuse to strike her. It’s called benevolent sexism.

D) During this entire video, Martina never utters a word. In their attempt to make a point about violence against women, (the Italian producers of the short video) completely objectify a young girl. They give her no voice, no autonomy, no active role. They use her as a prop. And out of all the wrongness crammed into that three minutes and nineteen seconds of video, this is the one that makes me the most upset. Violence against women occurs because of the objectification of women, because women are silenced. Rather than tear down the structures that perpetuate violence, this video reinforces them on multiple levels.

What would the videographers have done if one of the boys had actually followed through on the directive to hit Martina?

Heartwarming–you’re doing it wrong.