About That 6-Year-Old’s “Acute Disability”…

by James A. Bacon

Kudos to The Washington Post for continuing to dig into the particulars of the shooting by a 6-year-old student of a Newport News elementary school teacher. The latest revelations raise urgent questions about the causes of the breakdown of discipline at Richneck Elementary School and other schools across the commonwealth.

As the Post reports, school officials downplayed repeated warnings about the boy’s behavior, dismissing a threat to light a teacher on fire and watch her die.

Speaking through their attorney, the boy’s parents said that he has an “acute disability.” In one instance, he wrote a note saying that he hated his teacher and wanted to set her on fire. In another, he threw furniture, prompting students to hide beneath their desks. In yet another, he barricaded the doors to a classroom, preventing a teacher and students from leaving.

A six-year-old terrorizing the class. I shudder to think what he’ll be like when he’s ten or twelve.

The main question consuming the media is how the child gained access to a handgun, which his parents stated they store out of reach with a trigger lock. That’s a legitimate question. But there’s another: why was that child in school in the first place?

It is Virginia educational policy to “mainstream” children with disabilities to the greatest extent possible. The hope is that children with disabilities do better when they’re around non-disabled classmates. Maybe so. But forgotten in this formulation is the cost to the classmates of disrupted classes and harrowing experiences. Not to mention the cost to teachers who get shot in the torso.

According to Virginia Department of Education data, more than 5,000 public school students are classified with the disability type of “emotional disturbance.” More than 12,500 are classified with the autism disability, which is sometimes associated with emotional tantrums.

What rights do normal children (those without disabilities) have to not be subjected to tantrums, violence, and classroom disruption?

For the first time ever, established media are beginning to raise questions about the efficacy of the “restorative justice” approach to school discipline over traditional approaches. That’s the good news. The bad news is that discipline is still being framed as a racial-justice issue. In a Saturday article, the Associated Press said this:

Traditional discipline has widened inequities. Black children often are suspended or expelled at rates far higher than white children. Research has found that these discipline disparities can have lifelong consequences for children, such as worsened educational outcomes and higher rates of incarceration.

The racial/ethnic identity of the six-year-old shooter has not been released. But Richneck Elementary has a student body that is 45% Black, 18% Hispanic, 11% multiracial, and 3% Asian. Three quarters are “people of color.” Have “studies” examined the impact of classroom disruption on them? Do they suffer lifelong consequences? Are their educational outcomes worse as a result of disordered classrooms where teachers can’t teach?

I hope that most would agree that the school system should have found alternative arrangements for the six-year-old terror. How about the thousands of other uncontrollable children? They may not shoot their teachers, but they do create mayhem. Do non-disabled students have rights?

While we’re wrestling with those questions, we should be asking another question. What kind of society have we become when we produce enraged, six-year-old shooters?