02 August 2015

Kitty Genovese and the kid in the classroom next door


False correlation, you will say, and you will be right. But my mind is nothing but a random connector of things, so here I am...

"For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law‐abiding cit­izens in Queens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens.

Twice the sound of their voices and the sudden glow of their bedroom lights interrupted him and frightened him off. Each time he returned, sought her out and stabbed her again. Not one person telephoned ‐ the po­lice during the assault; one wit­ness called after the woman was dead." - The New York Times, March 27, 1964
On a Saturday morning - I'll admit a Saturday morning at the end of a frustrated, angry week, I began to throw out challenges to educators on Twitter: 
9h9 hours ago
What will you do this year about the teacher in the room next door who's doing a lousy job?
What will you do this year about the teacher in the room next door who's punishing kids for nonsense?
What will you do this year about the teacher in the room next door who's boring kids to death?
What will you do this year about the teacher in the room next door who's blocking kids from using contemporary tools?
It's time to stop being part of a wall of silence and fight for kids in every room in every school.
I've been a cop and an educator - and cops are more likely to turn in bad cops than teachers are to do the same  

http://gvshp.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/new-york-times.pngAnd as I threw these out, and got a flood of responses...
Hubby's a cop... That insight is so interesting and true. Sad considering both can destroy people.

The New York Paywall Times chimed in with the story of a new film being made called "37" - about the legendary 1964 Kitty Genovese murder case in Queens, New York.

As a former New York City Cop, as a native New Yorker,, the name "Kitty Genovese" can begin a world of conversation and argument. Few stories seem more depressing about how people come to see others as statistics, simply because this story seems to have been - at least in legend - the beginning of something awful.
"The socio-psychological phenomena that were studied after the killing — notably the “bystander effect,” by which individuals pass the buck to other witnesses when present at an act of violence — are universal and ongoing..." - John Anderson in The New York Times
And with these two streams connecting, I went back to my Tweet: "I've been a cop and an educator - and cops are more likely to turn in bad cops than teachers are to do the same."

Austin Street, where the crime took place, in 1964. (Photo: Edward Hausner/New York Times)
Austin Street, Kew Gardens, Queens, New York, in 1964

When I first went to work in a high school I thought two things, or maybe it was three. First I thought - I even said it to people - "I think lighthouse keepers have more peer-to-peer interaction than teachers." Exaggeration certainly, but teachers seemed stunningly isolated to me. They locked themselves in their classrooms, never watched each other "practice their craft," rarely discussed what worked and didn't work. I'd worked in many fields on my way to education and I was shocked.

Second I thought, "I know who the great teachers are and I know who the terrible teachers are." And I knew that within a couple of weeks of hearing kids talk and walking the corridors looking into classrooms. Then I realized that pretty much everybody even slightly observant in the building knew the same. And then I said, "Forget that 'blue wall of silence' crap. Cops are more likely to turn in bad cops than teachers are to turn in bad teachers."

http://www.ibeacon.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/UnitedStatesNewYorkNewYorkCityUnionSquareTelephoneBoothsB-20121211-940x705.jpg
Drop a dime... the anonymous call
Cops do turn in bad cops you know. In the NYPD the phrase was (perhaps still is) "drop a dime" on someone (though phone calls had long, long before ceased to be a dime in my day - please). To turn them in anonymously to Internal Affairs. It happened, it does happen, quite a bit. There's something about working day to day with bad cops - people who hurt people - people who ignore people's rights - that gets good cops (in good departments) to break through that blue wall.

Cops are more likely to turn in bad cops than teachers are to turn in bad teachers

Why? Is it because the stakes seem lower?

The fourth thing I realized - back in that first school - was that bad teaching professionals do more damage every day than bad cops and bad doctors. Really.  
"Now I know what you are saying, no school would ever do something like this. I mean, we now know that emotional abuse is bad, and we know that isolation, rejection, and public shaming is emotionally abusive, and we would never allow our teachers to engage in it. Shockingly however, emotional abuse is a problem in school. As a parent I have had to go to bat for my kids several times. For example, my son’s teacher put his name on a board and publicly humiliated him for not doing his work properly. When I told her that her public humiliation was making him feel bad, all she could say was that if he wanted to avoid the bad feelings, he’d have to perform to her expectations." - The Emotional Abuse of Our Children - 2013
I know that teachers know teachers who do things like take away lunch periods from kids who haven't gotten work done. Teachers who reduce grades for kids who 'move too much' in class. Who take away outside play time because of minor non-compliance. Who yell and humiliate, or who just humiliate. Who strip adolescents of their evenings because they think homework is a great thing. Who will keep children uncomfortable for hours on end - day after day (wasn't that a CIA torture technique?). I know teachers who know teachers who are bullies every day - but we hide behind the ideas that they are simply "tough" and "old-fashioned."

I know something else - maybe many kids will survive those teachers, but in every school there are kids in the classroom next door who will be permanently damaged - whose allostatic load will be pushed into the breaking realm - by teachers like that. These children are usually our most vulnerable from the start, and they will be most damaged - for life. And I know that those kids are calling for help, just as Kitty Genovese was, and what are we doing?

The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the characteristics that create education's Bystander Effect. These offences, these psychological assaults are:
  • Rationalized by offenders.
  • Normalized by students.
  • Minimized or ignored by colleagues who remain silent.
  • Enabled by inaction of school systems.
  • Undetected by outsiders.
Undetected by outsiders because, as on that night 51 years ago in Kew Gardens, nobody picks up the phone, nobody makes the call. "Colleagues may know about the behavior through rumors or persistent complaints, but think there is nothing they can do. School officials may have reason to believe it is occurring, yet fail to act. Almost without exception, offending teachers mask their mistreatment of students as part of a legitimate role function, using the rhetoric of “motivation” or “discipline” to justify their actions."

Extreme, but... how many teachers in this school knew about this? C'mon...

Bystander Effect is Bystander Effect. Whether its a dark night on an urban street or in the bright lights of a middle school. And crime is crime. Is a pursesnatching ok enough that we don't call 9-1-1? Is simply abusing children over homework ok enough that we don't go to our principal? We either step up and hear calls for help or we choose to not do that. Stepping up has risks in every case, even calling 9-1-1 can lead to real issues down the road. "Dropping a dime" on a colleague seems as risky an employee behavior as possible. But do we have room in our schools who will not step up for children?

The cops in 1964 New York City were horrified by the Kitty Genovese case. So horrified that they could hardly not talk about it, if the account I read in the book Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World's Fair And The Transformation Of America is anything close to true. It represented such of break in the social fabric - the social fabric that cops know is the only thing that makes their job possible (see Baltimore today for what happens when that dissolves) .

So no teacher in this school knew what this child was talking about? 
Or only the kids?

That social fabric is what wraps our children and let's them grow into healthy, safe adults. It is really just that, and we cannot let that fabric fray. The SPLC notes that, "There is typically a high degree of agreement among students (and colleagues) on which teachers engage in bullying behavior," and that, "Teachers are perceived to bully with impunity; they are seldom held accountable for their conduct."

How do we finally begin to change that? What will you do?

- Ira Socol

4 comments:

The Goldfish said...

This isn't a point of pedantry - I only mention this because I think you might find it interesting. Apparently, during the attack on Kitty Genovese, some neighbours did attempt to intervene and the number of inactive witnesses was greatly exaggerated. However, the way it was reported - some weeks later - certainly had the impact you describe. There's an audio segment about how it all came about here (11 minutes).

It is one of many examples, especially in behavioural psychology, where an observed phenomenon is misunderstood or exaggerated, only to stimulate proper research and observation which betters our understanding (The Hawthorne Effect is another famous example). There were certainly witnesses to the Kitty Genovese murder who didn't do anything because they were sure others would have called the police and that sort of thing happens a lot. People do struggle to overcome their desire not to rock the boat, whatever boat that is, even if that boat has a great big hole in it.

Really good to see you blogging again. :-)

Ira David Socol said...

Thanks Goldfish,

There's a nice piece here http://www.psmag.com/health-and-behavior/revisiting-austin-street-death-kitty-genovese-50-years-later-76460 on the fallibility of memory in regards to the Kitty Genovese case. I've long thought we know so little about what actually happened - this was 5 years before the centralized 9-1-1 reporting system and calls would have gone to the main police number, the precinct number, or just the phone operator without any of the tracking we know today.

So who might have seen, who might've called, are all lost. I always imagined, knowing the area a tiny bit, that hundreds might have heard, but how many made any connection? I do know that decades later, these kinds of screams - even in neighborhoods of much greater 'disintegration' - would often bring 30-50 9-1-1 calls in, but...

What was powerful then was the way the story fed into the underlying sense of the collapse of society. The cops saw it that way, the media saw it that way, I think everyone chose to. It was surely what I learned as a kid. Kew Gardens wasn't a bad neighborhood. It was solidly middle class, and if this could happen there...?

So, well, quoting the story I linked:
"Were there more than 38 people within earshot of the first attack? Yes. Did 38 of them know what they were witnessing? Almost certainly not. Was the New York Times story geared toward sensationalism? Absolutely. But even in Cook’s conservative assessment, there were two men who were watching and chose not to intervene, and at least four or five other neighbors who were awake and had a pretty good idea. If the story of Kitty Genovese is that her neighbors did nothing while she was murdered, it is not an “intractable urban myth,” as a paper in American Psychologist described it in 2007. There were witnesses, and no one helped her. That’s no urban legend."

The story had huge legs at the time because this was less than a mile from the about-to-open 1964-65 New York World's Fair, and thus it created an urban safety firestorm. It remained huge in New York because of the fears of the loss of social fabric.

So what's the social fabric in schools? Big question.



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Thanks,
Ramis

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