Monday with Mitch: Broom-swinging teacher doing her job
Two teens were beating up on each other. It looked like a barroom brawl. Their bodies hurled around the room. Furniture flew. Onlookers screamed.
Except this wasn’t a barroom. It was a classroom. At Detroit’s Pershing High School. And the first responder was, naturally, the teacher, a 5-foot-2 English instructor named Tiffani Eaton.
She did what she was supposed to do. She screamed at them to stop. She radioed for security. No one came because the radio given to her was broken. The teens tumbled to the floor now, one punching the head of the other.
So Eaton grabbed the first thing she could, a broom, and swatted the back of the young man on top, several times, screaming at him to get off the other student. They separated. Soon after, the fight broke up.
If I stop right there, many of you would give this woman a medal.
Instead, she was fired — fired? — because she violated the school’s corporal punishment rule.
It is hard to write that without gagging.
A few days after the incident, which, of course, was filmed by a student’s cellphone (heaven forbid that kid break up the fight instead of worrying about YouTube viewers), one of the combatants, Kiren Lowery, was asked by a Fox 2 News crew whether he was at fault for his teacher’s firing.
“No,” he said. “She ... could have waited for the security. ... So I think that’s what she deserve.”
Eaton, 30, is like many Americans, divorced and bringing up two kids on her own. While raising her family, she received a master’s degree in teaching at Wayne State, took a job in the challenged Highland Park School District, was laid off for budgetary reasons, had to take work as a medical assistant, and finally found an opening this year at Pershing, which is run by the statewide system for the worst-performing public schools, the Education Achievement Authority. EAA teachers do not belong to a union.
According to Eaton’s attorney, several teachers already had quit the job Pershing offered her. Eaton happily accepted.
“I never lost hope that I would return to teaching,” she told me through an email. “I simply couldn’t imagine my life without it.”
Yet, suddenly, she is without it. Fired. She wouldn’t be if she’d just leaned against her desk and watched two kids try to kill each other.
But then she wouldn’t be much of a teacher — or a mother. Because good mothers, like good teachers, know that there are times you do things for the safety of children and don’t worry about ramifications. Eaton saw two strong teens at risk of seriously hurting each other. How many times does a head need to be banged on a floor before real damage occurs?
With security not coming, “I realized I would have to deal with this alone,” Eaton wrote. “It was the worst fight I’d ever seen.”
Had she tried physically to break it up, she likely would have been injured herself (and still perhaps been accused of corporal punishment!). So she grabbed the broom. Maybe not the best move. But nobody ever died from a broom whack. The video shows the teens didn’t even acknowledge it. They continued tearing up the room and each other.
For this, they were merely suspended — one for 10 days, one for three — while Eaton was axed.
By the way, if you’re wondering where kids get such disrespect for schooling, consider Tawanda Richardson, Lowery’s mother, who told Fox 2 that Eaton “shouldn’t have hit him with the broom. She should’ve let them kept fighting until security got there.”
Eaton will appear before an EAA board of directors meeting next month. Meanwhile, she remains fired. Not only is that ridiculous, but in reading the Michigan revised school code, I don’t see what she did wrong. It states that a school employee may use “reasonable physical force upon a pupil” in trying to:
- “Restrain or remove a pupil whose behavior is interfering with the orderly exercise and performance of school ... functions.”
- “For self-defense or the defense of another.”
- “Quell a disturbance that threatens physical injury to any person.”
- “Protect property.”
Are you kidding? How could Pershing not interpret all that in her favor? At worst, give her a warning or a minor suspension? Remember, her radio didn’t function and the security person assigned outside her classroom was away on another problem. How much more stacked could the deck be?
That video is the worst piece of advertising Detroit schools could get. Yet, amazingly, Eaton only wants her job back. Pershing should throw rose petals at her feet. Instead, the protocol has her being investigated for — dear God — child abuse.
“I want to continue teaching,” she lamented. “It’s frustrating to know that the career path I had chosen for my life, my passion, might end prematurely.”
It shouldn’t. This is a travesty. The students who don’t respect school get to stay in it, while the teacher who cares is thrown out.
Maybe that’s Detroit’s “new math.”
Mitch Albom is a columnist for the Detroit Free Press.
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