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Louisiana teacher's arrest shows a broken system

It was going to be hard to top the absurdity of a well-built, well-armed man, well, manhandling, then handcuffing, a ...

Posted: Jan 11, 2018 12:22 PM
Updated: Jan 11, 2018 12:22 PM

It was going to be hard to top the absurdity of a well-built, well-armed man, well, manhandling, then handcuffing, a much smaller woman because she dared to publicly challenge a Louisiana school board and superintendent. The fact that this absurdity wasn't the biggest one coming out of that Louisiana community only underscores how much we've allowed disproportionate responses by those in power to become the new norm because of a misplaced dedication to respecting authority.

Deyshia Hargrave, who teaches English language arts at Rene A. Rost Middle School, stood up during a meeting to express her displeasure about a raise the superintendent would be receiving. She said it was unfair. The school board president ruled that it was inappropriate for her to raise such an issue during the public comment section.

Nonetheless, she was called upon for a second time and again raised objections before a police officer -- for a still-inexplicable reason -- tried to remove her from the meeting and aggressively handcuffed her in the hallway.

That act itself took courage. Hargrave is in Louisiana, but I've spoken with teachers throughout the supposedly politically independent, plain-speaking South and have found that many of them fear speaking up. Though I've encountered countless teachers who wondered why the highest-paid person in a district so frequently seems to get the largest raise while teacher and everyday staff salaries go up minimally, if at all, most keep those concerns to themselves, or in private among fellow teachers, not wanting to lose their jobs or opportunities for career advancement.

"I feel like it's a slap in the face to all the teachers, cafeteria workers and any other support staff we have," Hargrave told the board. That, apparently, made her a menace.

She wasn't screaming hysterically or uttering a rapid-fire succession of four-letter words. She didn't pull out a gun or knife. She didn't rush the board members and threaten them with bodily harm. In their eyes, and the eyes of a police officer providing security, she did something worse -- she questioned the rightness of their decision-making and the morality of their authority to their faces, for all to see.

That willingness to question authority, more than anything else, seems to put fear in the hearts of those in power. It's the darnedest thing, which is likely why school board president Anthony Fontana felt comfortable releasing a statement that upped the ante on the absurdity of interpreting Hargrave as anything approaching a threat.

The officer did his job, Fontana said, because if a teacher can send a "student that's acting up in the classroom" to the principal's office, surely the board can do the same to a teacher. That's right. A veteran teacher isn't an adult who deserves to be treated like a fellow professional, but more like a snooty-nosed kid who refuses to spit his gum in the garbage when asked.

She was charged with resisting an officer and Fontana said she was handcuffed after starting a skirmish in the hallway where there was no video, a claim, that, frankly, sounds implausible. It's also disturbing that the officer never considered that his actions were an overreaction. Is that the way he was trained, to escalate, not diffuse, a tense situation? How did he not realize how absurd he looked?

And the bigger problem is that it's not just school boards. A nurse who refuses to violate hospital policy because an officer demands she does needs to be put in handcuffs. Elementary-school aged students with emotional problems deserve the metal bracelets, too.

A mentally ill person in a particularly difficult moment aggressively waving a screwdriver? Why, of course it makes sense for authorities to respond with deadly force, for their well-being is always paramount, whether it means a police officer facing a potential lash to the face from a dull blade or a school superintendent having to suffer through someone questioning why his already large salary is growing.

It only makes sense if we accept their logic: that those of us not in positions of power are like kids who need to be scolded or handled roughly to remind us to dare not step out of line again. It is a foundation upon which the belief that suggests "second-guessing" a police officer is out of bounds, no matter how egregious or harmful the behavior, is built.

Is there any wonder why an officer -- and a jury that exonerated him -- felt it was perfectly reasonable to execute a man who had spent several minutes desperately trying to follow every command because he momentarily dropped his hands to stop his pants from dropping to the floor? We have accepted these erosions of our freedoms because we've come to believe a falsehood, that that's the only way to show proper respect for authority.

By virtue of their positions, those with power will be heard. That should make them more willing to listen to us, even when they don't like what we have to say. There's something wrong with the way we are policed because we've become convinced we are obligated to making sure our leaders are comfortable instead of reminding them they get paid to serve us.

Shame on us for having allowed that to happen. Shame on us if we only recognize the danger in that new reality when an officer fills the back of an unarmed man full of lead and not when a teacher is treated like a criminal for expressing an opinion.

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