From Forced Compliance to Mutual Respect: Examining Policing and Special Education

CW: police brutality, abuse, forced compliance.

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“I was a cop for 30 years, about half of that working Custody. Excluding those under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it was my experience that if you treat people like people the majority will act reasonably, and if they don’t you can change your approach. However if you treat people like animals they will more often than not act like animals.” Anonymized Facebook comment.

“We can no longer be spectators. We MUST be a voice for children. We can do better. Compliance should never be the goal. We need to bring the humanity back into our classrooms.” Greg Santucci, Occupational Therapist

George Floyd lost his life over a $20 bill. Rayshard Brooks lost his life because he fell asleep in the car at a Wendy’s drive-through. Elijah McClain lost his life because someone thought he looked “sketchy” as he was walking home.

Three Black men who all died at the hands of police because they didn’t immediately comply with arrest.

I read these stories, and then I read about what happens to disabled children in American schools, and I see many disturbing parallels.

Each year, thousands of children are legally subjected to physical restraints, or secluded in locked spaces separate from their peers. Many of these kids are disabled. Restraints and seclusion can inflict severe emotional and physical trauma, and can lead to injury or death.

Some people justify police brutality by saying the cops had no choice, the victims were resisting arrest. And people justify restraint and seclusion in the same way. The educators had no choice, they say, because the child had become an immediate threat to themselves or others.

But it is important to note that we only see the ending of the story. We miss the series of escalations and counter-escalations that lead to a police officer wrestling a man to the ground, or the events leading up to a teacher restraining a student. But sometimes we get glimpses of the beginning or the middle of the story. And the theme that often stands out to me is how a person in authority chooses to react to a relatively harmless initial act of noncompliance.

This week, I read about two harrowing incidents involving disabled children. In the first instance, a little girl did not want to join her class in the daily “morning meeting.” When she refused to “do the weather” as expected for this classroom activity, an educator tried to physically force her, then taunted her by repeating “Do the weather. Do the weather. Do the weather” (as if at a séance) until she finally, tearfully complied. In the second instance, a little boy did not want to transition from outdoor playground time to indoor occupational therapy. So, the educator threatened to cover his eyes with a hat unless he agreed to come in from the playground, repeatedly asking, “Do you want the hat? Do you want the hat?” until he broke down and went inside. In both incidents, the educators justified their bullying behavior by appealing to principles of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). They insisted that they could not “reward” noncompliance. In fact, in the place where the hat incident occurred, many of the staff carried hats with them and habitually used the “hat trick” to frighten children into complying with demands.

In both cases, there was an obvious peaceful solution. The little girl could have gone outside on a walk to learn about the weather. The little boy could have had his occupational therapy session out on the playground. Both solutions would have respected the needs communicated by the children, and met the pedagogical goals of the adults, with much less hassle for all. But instead, these educators made a conscious choice to assert their power above all else. Both students complied eventually. But what could have happened if they didn’t comply? It gives me chills to think about it.

In the discussion I saw on Facebook about these incidents, some people argued that these educators were just bad apples. The principles of ABA are sound, they said. And this is similar to discussions of police brutality and racism. Some folks say there are just some racist cops who need to be removed or retrained.

I disagree. I don’t think we can address pervasive, deadly issues like these just by retraining. We need to consider the ideological flaws in both the policing and the special-education systems that allow these incidents to occur.

In my mind, there are two main ideological flaws that must be addressed. The first is the “law and order” idea that compliance must be prioritized over respect for persons. The second is a series of biases that cause people in authority to see certain groups of people as requiring authoritarian control. It is the biased belief that Blacks are dangerous and that any resistance on their part must be criminally motivated. And it is the biased belief that neurodivergent children are noncompliant on purpose and that their behavior must be shaped with methods that resemble dog training. We need to address the dehumanizing prejudices that cause situations to become escalated in the first place.

What could have happened if the cops listened when George Floyd said he couldn’t breathe? When Rayshard Brooks asked to walk over to his sister’s house and rest there until he was able to safely drive home? Or when Elijah McClain said words that ring true to many of us disabled folk: “I’m just different. That’s all. I’m so sorry….I don’t do any fighting.”

What if the cops had made time and space to listen, like the occupational therapist who agreed to do his session outside, no problem.

I don’t have the magic solutions here. These are deep systemic problems that cannot possibly be resolved in a blog post. But I would urge all of us to consider the values and the prejudices we hold in our interactions with others, especially interactions where we hold authority. Because most adults will hold authority of some kind in at least one of our important relationships. I would challenge all of us to make an extra effort to humanize and respect the individuals who are our subordinates. Because I am of the firm belief that respect must be given before it can be received. This fact has revealed itself to me time and time again, in my professional and personal life, and in my attempts to analyze current events from a social-psychological lens. Perhaps if we can all keep this simple concept of mutual respect in mind, we can collectively foster a culture where everyone’s full humanity is celebrated.

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