What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You

John McCullum's story tells of the dangers of the unexpected in a classroom when he finds that the students have divided themselves racially and academically. McCullum blames himself for creating a potentially volatile situation.

John’s seventh period class

When John thought about his seventh period class, his breathing became shallow and a radiating knot of anxiety formed in his stomach. This class, the only one which proved to be troublesome, consisted of fifteen eighth-grade students, seven very high-achieving students, and eight who performed considerably lower academically. Of these eight, five talked, laughed, and attempted to dominate the class and him throughout the period. Although John had managed to cope with these problems on a more or less passable basis, doing so had taken a great deal of energy. John had a difficult time concentrating on his lesson delivery, as he was constantly distracted by the students who seemed to want to set up a situation in which either he or they won control of the class. He braced himself daily to confront this group. He thought he was familiar with the problems and potential pitfalls in this class. But John was soon to learn that it is easier to fall prey to the dangers of the unexpected and that they often hold the most dire consequences. He was to learn this lesson from a usually quiet student in this seventh-period class.

A review game gets out of hand.

One afternoon, John, a student teacher, planned to conduct a test review in the form of a quiz-show game. On this particular day, his clinical instructor was absent, and a substitute teacher was in his place. The clinical instructor seldom if ever attended class, so this day was much like any other for John. He was accustomed to having complete freedom to plan for and instruct this class as he deemed best. Because he was given this autonomy, he chose to take a different approach with the class than that of the clinical instructor. The clinical instructor had usually given the students individual written assignments to complete, and he used very little direct instruction or group work approaches with them. John felt that it was important to use a variety of instructional techniques for these students.

After directing the students to form groups of their choice, he began the game with the expectation that although the class would be “rowdy,” the game would prove to be an enjoyable and effective review technique. Very little time had elapsed before John realized that the students had selected themselves into groups along racial and academic lines. Six high-achieving white students formed two groups of three each. Only one black female was high-achieving. Of the low-achieving students, seven were black and one was a white male. These remaining nine students formed three groups of three each. John knew that the white students also came from upper middle-class neighborhoods, whereas the other students came from relatively poor homes. Although he was aware of these factors, he was yet to appreciate the potential volatility of the situation.

When an argument erupted between one of the students from a high-achieving group (Chris) and one of the low-achieving students (Richard), he immediately rose and stepped between them. Ignoring the obscenities being exchanged, John moved quickly to separate them because they had already begun pushing and shoving one another. After separating the students, he was able to recommence the game, which continued more or less successfully until the end of the class period. As the class was dismissed, however, the two students resumed their hostile exchange at the door.

Again, John moved to intervene, calling both students back to the classroom. Only Chris complied. Richard ran down the corridor and turned the corner. Because Chris did not start the argument, and because John thought that it would have been fruitless to discuss the issue with only one of the students involved, he released Chris to go home.

John reflects on the situation.

In the empty classroom, John reflected on the incident. Despite Richard’s academic difficulties, he had not been, up to this point, a behavioral problem in class. In fact, John knew very little about him beyond the fact that he was an academically weak student and had been retained several times. Consequently, Richard was much older and larger than his classmates. John felt that he should not allow Richard’s flagrant disobedience to go unaddressed. He decided to go look for Richard. Finding Richard at the bike rack just outside the building, he approached him and said that he wanted to talk. Richard responded by jumping on his bike and stating, “I don’t got time for this,” as he rode away. John, stinging with indignation, immediately went to the office and submitted a disciplinary referral.

The situation escalates.

Upon Richard’s arrival at school the following morning, John presented him with the referral notice and walked with him to the office for a conference with the vice-principal. On the way, John explained that the referral meant an automatically assigned afternoon detention period in his classroom for refusing to stop when he called.

Less than half an hour later, John went to the office to complete some copying and noticed Richard still waiting outside the office for his conference with the vice-principal. As he went about his chore, Richard began to make comments in a somewhat staged whisper to the student next to him. These comments amounted to threats directed toward John such as, “I’m going to break his jaw.” At this point, John decided to ignore the remarks.

As he was leaving, he once again encountered Richard, who had gone to the hallway water fountain. John glanced at him as he walked by, and Richard retorted sharply, “Don’t be looking at me, boy.” John was becoming increasingly angered by Richard’s exhibition in front of another student. Although he thought it best to catch himself, he slowly hissed through clenched teeth, “Go in, sit down, and don’t make anything worse on yourself. Just sit down and shut up and wait for Mr. Roberts to see you.” After mumbling a few unintelligible remarks, Richard complied.

Adding fuel to the fire: Detention

Although Mr. Roberts had agreed to keep Richard in the In-School Suspension (ISS) rather than sending him to John’s class that afternoon, Richard showed up in class. Obviously, Mr. Roberts had bungled the ISS schedule somehow, and now John had to deal with Richard in spite of the tensions created by the situation. Fortunately, Richard remained quiet and low-key throughout class.

When John reminded him of the detention that afternoon, Richard declared that he had to catch his bus or he would have no way home. Doubting that this was the case, John told Richard that he could go home so long as he made arrangements to stay the following day. He also warned him that failure to do so would result in referral and possible suspension.

John’s difficulty with Richard escalated the next day during the suspension period. Ironically, John had not seen Richard in class because he had been kept in ISS. He couldn’t help feeling a little resentful that Mr. Roberts had failed to keep Richard the day before and then kept him when it no longer mattered. At least, he thought, they could give me a little support downstairs. How hard could it be, after all, to keep a simple ISS schedule straight?

Upon arrival for his afternoon detention, Richard announced, “The only reason I’m staying this detention is because Mr. Roberts said I had to.” When John attempted to explain to him exactly why he was given detention, Richard’s behavior became erratic. A sickening knot formed in John’s stomach as he realized that he was losing control of the situation.

Because Richard refused to be seated, and walked around the room striking the computer, walls, desks, and other objects with a yardstick, John was forced to ask students who had remained after school to complete a project to go to the library. John told him several times to be seated and tried to explain to him why he had gotten the referral. Each time, Richard retorted, “How come Chris didn’t get a referral?” John attempted to explain several more times that the referral was not given for fighting, but for running away and refusing to return. Several times during John’s explanations, Richard covered his ears and began singing a rap tune. With each explanation, he repeated the same refrain, “How come Chris didn’t get a referral?”

Soon, Richard began performing a rap song with graphic lyrics that detailed his plan to beat up Chris. Several times he told John that he was going downstairs to tell the vice-principal that, “You were trying to beat me up, that you were trying to hit me with the yardstick, and that you were trying to slit my throat.” He called John “Stupid” and Peanut-head,” declared that he hated him, and asked him why he didn’t go back to the university. John began to sense that the differences in race and backgrounds had something to do with the animosity he was receiving from Richard.

At intervals, Richard pulled a small bottle from his jacket pocket and drank from it. The contents looked like water, but he called it his “beer” and “wine.” Two times during this period, Richard wandered outside of the classroom. John followed him, reminding him that during detention, he must stay in the room. When Richard decided to return to the classroom, he preceded John inside, pulled the door closed, and held it so that he could not get in.

Once inside the classroom, John attempted to get some work done, but Richard’s singing was too loud for him to concentrate. When John delivered a stern look in his direction, Richard leaped from his chair and confronted him.

“You staring at me! Don’t be looking at me! Have you got a problem?”

Implicit in this confrontation was a physical threat. John sensed that Richard was soliciting a fight. His pulse quickened, and much to his chagrin, John found himself sizing up Richard’s physical bearing, comparing it to his own, inch-by-inch, pound-by-pound.

At that moment, John saw a student walking down the hall. Slipping out of the room, he asked the student to get the teacher next door. The teacher, who happened to be Richard’s English teacher, was quick to grasp the situation. Stepping inside the classroom, she ordered him in a stern voice to sit down. Richard retaliated with several sharp remarks. It was clear that he was ready to take her on as well. Realizing this, she went downstairs to the vice-principal, who told her to release Richard from detention.

Before he released Richard, John told him that he intended to report his behavior and to re-refer him. Initially, Richard refused to leave until he had completed his detention because he thought that John would not be able to re-refer him if he stayed for the duration of the period. Finally, John told him that he could stay if he wanted, but he would still get re-referred. Richard insisted upon remaining for the entire period.

Information that might have helped.

John left school that afternoon with an abysmal sense of failure. He mentally reviewed the events leading up to this afternoon like a bad song that he could not get off his mind.

Two days later, during a discussion with the English teacher and a special education teacher, he discovered that Richard had been attending classes for students with behavior disorders for the past two years. Still, Richard had not been a problem before in this class, and John blamed his own ineptness for creating the situation. If only he hadn’t …

See Richard’s IEP below:

See Analysis A below:


See Analysis B below:


See Judge’s Rating Scale below: