February 14, 2000

Letter to the editor re: "Blackboard Licking Spurs Controversy," Sent to New York Times and Oakland Tribune, February 12, 2000
By Jordan Riak

Dear Editor,

Injecting the so-called “race card” into the controversy about the 5-year-old Oakland, California schoolchild who allegedly was punished by her teacher by being made to lick the blackboard has caused it to veer off track. Racism is, at most, a peripheral consideration in this case. By making it central, we muddy the waters and permit ourselves to be diverted from the real problem: a dangerously incompetent teacher abusing a defenseless child.

The significance of the skin color of the players, if it is a factor at all, is probably limited in this respect: caretakers who abuse children, when given a choice of victims, are more likely to select those who are perceived to be easiest, safest targets. This is true of bullies and abusers generally. (Sometimes, as in the case at hand, it seems, they misjudge.) Had the teacher been black, would there have been no problem? Is it okay for a child to be abused if the abuser is a member of the child's same ethnic/social group? I don't think so.

Dirt-licking as a punishment is not rare. Some years ago, in Australia, a group of worried parents contacted my organization to report a teacher whose standard form of punishment was to grab a child by the back of the neck, order him to protrude his tongue, then guide his face along the length of the chalk tray at the base of the black board, effectively mopping chalk dust with the child's tongue. And more recently, a family in California contacted my organization to tell about a school principal who ordered their son to lick up his own spittle from the ground. In each of these cases, the abuser and the abused were members of the same ethnic/social class.

People who engage in such behaviors are restaging events from their own victimized childhoods. They learned early to anaesthetize their own painful humiliations by conjuring authoritarian fantasies. This became a habit. Now, as adults, with the roles reversed, they can convert those same fantasies into reality--they can dish out to others what they had once received. Such individuals are strongly attracted to work environments that give them the opportunity to reign supreme over the helpless: schools, camps, hospitals, convalescent homes, prisons, police work, the judiciary, the military, organized children’s sports. They need help, and should never be put in charge of anyone who is vulnerable or dependent. Mere reeducation, or the promulgation of stricter guidelines, or closer supervision by their superiors does not solve their problem, but prompts them to become more cunning. They simply cannot understand human interaction based on fairness and respect, but only in terms of domination and submission. They need to be hurting somebody--children usually--in order to feel safe and in control.

Jordan Riak
Executive Director, PTAVE

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