Why Nobody Wins In The Ray Rice Assault Case

Like so many other citizens of Baltimore (and football followers across the country), I am nearly speechless about the incident involving Ray Rice and his fiancee, Janay Palmer.

As of this evening, this much is known. Two complaint summons were filed with the Atlantic City Municipal Court on Feb. 15, 2014. In the first summons, it is written that Palmer “did…commit assault by attempting to cause bodily injury to Raymell Rice, specifically by striking him with her hand, while at the Revel Casino.”

In the second summons, it is written that Rice “did…commit assault by attempting to cause bodily injury to J. Palmer, specifically by striking her with his hand, rendering her unconscious, at the Revel Casino.”

Before the two summons were released, TMZ.com released a video purportedly showing Rice dragging Palmer’s unconscious body out of an elevator. Rice’s attorney, Michael Diamonstein, has confirmed the video is authentic, but also argues that it shows the end of the incident and should not be used as the sole basis for judgment or even understanding of what occurred.

Regardless of what happened before he (allegedly) dragged Ms. Palmer’s limp body from the elevator (and then walked away), there is no side-stepping the enormity of this incident for Rice, Palmer, and others.

In fact, this is just plain ugly on too many fronts, which is why the story is so big in Baltimore and beyond. It has polarized the nation on various platforms:

Football: How should the Ravens handle this? The NFL? Should his success as a football player be kept separate from his personal matters? Will Rice play again for the Ravens? For anyone in the NFL?

Bullying: How can an individual so outspoken on bullying be involved in an alleged assault with a woman? Does this negate his advocacy? Undo the many projects he has supported and endorsed? Diminish the impact he has had locally in Howard County, Baltimore City, and elsewhere?

Domestic Violence: How will a public figure be viewed and, ultimately, judged in a matter of domestic violence? Will his clean record and social advocacy act as “contributing factors” that might lead to him receiving a sentence on the lower end of the spectrum? There is already discussion that the charges don’t fit the crime; will they be revised to more accurately reflect what happened, thus focusing on the issue of domestic violence as opposed to a football player, or a once-antibullying advocate?

He vs. She: Mutual assault charges were written against Rice and Palmer, leading many to ask, who was at fault? Is there even a victim? I have seen many online fights already, claiming she deserved it and he had every right to fight back. Others argue that under no circumstances do you ever hit a woman.

Which platform — if any — will rise to the top of list? Is any one of these more important than the other?

There is a fifth platform that has yet to be discussed.

Local Idolatry: We have raised Ray Rice to be a hero for our children, and few local athletes have done more to stop bullying and stand up for the victims. He empowered so many with confidence, trust, and courage. What will our children think? What do any of us think when we build up such public figures and they embrace the opportunity to lead – at one time by example?

This is why we all need to care about what is happening to Ray Rice and Janay Palmer. This is not just about football, bullying, domestic violence, gender roles, or local idolatry. It’s about all of these things, but each is so intertwined with the other, like thickets of wild thorns impossible — and dangerous — to separate.

Maybe this is why, in the end, none of these platform fighters will be satisfied with any outcome. Nobody wins in this case.

We can only hope that our own sensibility rises from the thickets, that we take care of ourselves, and of each other, and know that we can never raise another individual to a level above us, or anyone else.

We need to continue our fight to end bullying, to end domestic violence, to end idolatry. We don’t need to waste our energy mulling over the what-ifs and how-comes of limelight individuals who have struggled themselves. While we may offer our thoughts and prayers that they get the help they need to resolve their differences and overcome their issues, we cannot let this single incident detract us from the hard work that needs to continue with these and other important causes, and with the masses who are not football heroes or community leaders who struggle with the bullying and the violence every day.


“Be Good To People”

colleenritzer“No matter what happens in life, be good to people. Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.”

These words were written by 24-year-old Colleen Ritzer, the Danvers High algebra I teacher who was murdered in the school bathroom last Tuesday.

The alleged murderer is a 14-year-old student in Ritzer’s class.

The details are chilling. A dedicated teacher notices a child not focusing in class. At 1:55 p.m., she asks him to stay after school for some help, and just 95 minutes later, while school activities are in full swing and teachers and students are still in the hallways and in other classrooms, she is murdered and her body dumped in the nearby woods, just 20 feet beyond the school’s athletic fields.

Be good to people…

We do this all the time as teachers. It’s not even something that could be considered “above and beyond.” We see a child struggling, and we offer help. It’s a part of the job. It’s just what we do.

As a teacher, I never considered that asking a student to stay after class would put my life in danger; it seemed unfathomable that a student would see my actions as being anything but supportive.

Even with students who are struggling in some way, I never felt that any of my students would not understand my desire to help.

That consideration, that feeling, is slipping away.

Tragedies that have happened in America’s schools in recent years have compromised teachers’ feelings of security and trust. The stories that become national headlines are the most horrific, but student violence toward teachers is happening everywhere. Here in Baltimore, attacks on teachers are so numerous that they never even break into the top stories of the day; only a fraction of the incidents of assault and harassment make it to the police blotter.

As a nation continues to discuss general security in our schools, teachers are talking about specific security concerns in their own classrooms, filled with individuals in whom they see great potential.

Is it enough any more to believe in our students? To understand that they are facing so many anxieties, pressures, and challenges, and to believe that they even realize that we understand this?

We are no longer talking about college-aged shooters, or 17- or 18-year-old emerging adults who are overwhelmed with the pressures of growing up.

The alleged killers in last week’s tragedies were just 12 and 14 years old.

Teachers will continue to see the potential in their students, be concerned about their well-being, and find effective strategies to help them succeed academically and feel more confident about their abilities. I don’t doubt that any of these traits will diminish.

What is happening, though, is a greater sense of caution and concern for personal safety. There is a rising tension from the various what-if scenarios that now exist. We cannot ignore the tragedies that are happening in our classrooms, nor can we overlook the under-reported incidents of assaults on teachers from children of all ages — children who don’t necessarily have file folders filled with reports of bullying or mental illness.

It seems like anybody, anywhere, of any age is a candidate for inexplicable violence.

I wish I had the answers. It isn’t enough to tell my fellow teachers to be more “aware” of our students’ behaviors. It isn’t enough to say that we need more support from the families and the communities raising our children. It isn’t enough to say that we need more guns, more guards, more security cameras.

And it isn’t enough to say that we need more love and understanding in this world.

“Be good to people…”

Oh, Ms. Ritzer, you were just that.

I wish that had been enough to save your life last Tuesday afternoon.


No Comparison: Why Everything’s Different For Today’s Children

(previously published at http://www.towson.patch.com, 9/8/2012)

September 9-15, 2012, is National Suicide Prevention Week, and the link between bullying and suicide attempts is alarming. According to numerous studies by Yale University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bully victims are between two and nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. For more information about depression, anxiety, suicide prevention, and efforts to stop bullying, visit www.linesoflove.org.

The other day, I had lunch with a few teens at our high school to talk about bullying and why it’s so hard to establish a climate of kindness in our communities. I am firmly entrenched in my “middle-aged” years, and I am constantly hearing from my peers about how it was back then and how we all survived without all of this intervention and focus being placed on bullying. I began wondering: Are we too critical and oversensitive about how our children are treated in this post-9/11 era?

As we munched on baby carrots and potato chips, I asked them pointedly: What does a kid face these days that makes bullying so real to them, and why are there so many bystanders?

They immediately rattled off three big factors that were not a part of my childhood where we just got over it and moved on. Here’s what they came up with.

1. Social Media

The sudden evolution of social media has shattered all generational barriers, throwing everyone from toddlers to grannies into the world of instant communication. This has happened so quickly that adults no longer lead by the basic tenets of wisdom and experience. They are just as susceptible as children to posting and responding immediately – usually emotionally – to anyone about anything. The result? We lack leaders in how to handle the spontaneous and often “viral” roll of responses that, because they are founded in emotion and expressed in a virtual environment, are often personal and vicious.

This dissolution of filters, where emotions have replaced patience and intellect, put individuals in a dangerous and precarious path of self-destruction, where they cannot escape the obsession with, and often the onslaught of, personal reactions and attacks on others, as well as on themselves.

We are desperately trying to adapt, to find a way to cope with this new filter-less and emotion-driven mode of communication, but we are struggling between adjustment with what we say and how we receive what others say to us. Two things are happening at once: we’ve got a tidal wave of thoughts and attacks hitting us, and we’re trying to contain the flood with the little beach buckets we once used to build our sand castles. We are not prepared to handle the onslaught, and we are desperate in our responses and in our reactions, throwing back buckets of emotional rhetoric right into the eye of the storm.

2. No Place to Hide

Today’s teens never had their privacy, and adults are desperate to reclaim that solace they once enjoyed. Both generations have to make a great effort to unplug from Facebook, Twitter, texting, and smart phones, even for a short time. We are expected to be available 24/7, and when we do unplug, we are seen as the oddballs; we are forced to justify our need for quiet time, and many friends and family members express concern, worry, or even anger at our decision to unplug. Not too long ago, being incommunicative meant being isolated, difficult, and even disrespectful. Now, the same term is being used on those of us who find the strength to pull away and focus on taking the time we need to get out of the whirlwind of social streaming, if just for a short period of time. Whereas we were supposed to answer mailed letters within 3-5 days, we are now expected to answer texts in less than 3-5 minutes.

What is the result? We are constantly “on” for others and don’t give ourselves the down time we need to refresh and strengthen our own self-confidence. Instead, everything we do is measured by the number of shares or “likes” we receive, or the responses we get in 140 characters or less. We can’t possibly take care of ourselves if we are constantly “on-call.”

This is a multi-generational phenomenon, and we don’t have a defined group of individuals serving as role models showing us how to manage all of this. Anybody is vulnerable, and the consequences that are weakening our self-worth are often swiftly written and quite personal and violent.

3. Social Pressure and the Bystander Effect

Social media and instant newsfeeds have left us all numb and desensitized to tragedies and calls for help, simply because we see and hear about it all the time. Incredulously, we spend less than two seconds “liking” celebrations of publishing, babies being born, birthdays, and graduations, but do little else as we push through the updates on our phones. We offer 10-second statements of sympathy to those who have struggled, but spend more time talking about the weather (literally) or somebody’s cute dog picture.

This gloss-over approach to the news and events only makes the bystander effect (the larger the group, the less likely someone will step up to help someone in need) exponentially worse. Many crises and cries for help are simply not addressed because we have become numb, and we don’t have a strong reaction to them anymore. What complicates this phenomenon even more is that it is human nature to want to be accepted, and when the masses are numb, we are likely to be numb bystanders as well.

We are given no clearer example of this than when a video or post goes “viral” or “trends” through the various social media channels. We end up “liking” and sharing these posts because everybody else is doing it, regardless of what we really know or understand about what we are sharing. Partly, it is no different than watchng a popular reality television show that you know has little substance; everybody else is watching it, though, so you do so as well.

There is one critical difference, however, between trending television shows and numb bystanders idly watching the repeated verbal or virtual abuses of another individual: television shows are made up, distant, and have little or nothing to do with us. Tragically, we apply the same indifference to the real, personal, and upfront abuses that are clearly defined as bullying. We are losing our ability to distinguish between the two.

Today’s teens and adolescents are growing up in a time where news is instant and abundant. They have been saturated with horrific stories, over and over again. And now, they (and we as well) are no longer driven to action when we see something that is obviously wrong. One of the major factors of the bystander effect is the diffusion of responsibility. There are so many people here; surely I don’t have to be the one to stand up and do something about it. In our Facebook worlds where we have hundreds and hundreds of “friends,” it’s not hard to rationalize that, indeed, somebody else will stand up.  Some of us even believe that, instead, it would be better to retweet a bullying message or get out our phones and record a fight or similar incident, instead of doing something to stop it. After all, it is far more glamorous to be an iReporter than to be that oddball who stops or prevents a tragic situation from happening.

Our teens feel that pressure to be bystanders because this is all they know.  Stepping up to stop an incident of bullying, intimidation, or physical violence now requires great self-confidence, which is hard to come by these days.

As one of my students put it, for the bystanders, it’s not about being bullied as much as it is about not being accepted. This desperate need for ongoing, immediate acceptance is insatiable. It is emotion-driven, and an “unliked” cry for help in a status update can turn an emotional moment into a serious crisis. Kids end up harboring these feelings (left with no place to vent or share); that leads to a lower self-esteem, which then results in the lack of motivation to take positive risks and join other groups.

There’s no comparison between when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s and what today’s adolescents and teens are facing right now. If we are going to really address the issue of bullying, we need to rethink how we first establish a foundation of strong self-worth and confidence in the era of social media and instant communication. We need to empower our children – and ourselves – with the tools to unplug, stand tall, and embrace a more balanced way of living that promotes self-wellness and an outward expression of kindness and respect.

Give Education Reform Projects A Chance

I am one of the lucky teachers who gets the chance to work with students for four straight years while they are in high school. When young journalism or graphics/design students enter my classroom as freshmen, I know that I can establish a 4-year plan toward independence, autonomy, and confidence in the work they produce, and the effort they put into it. By the time they leave my class, I want them to feel empowered to achieve any goal they wish to pursue.

That’s why I am one of the lucky ones. Some of my colleagues at other schools don’t get the support that I receive from my administration and school community. For them, their programs are filled with one-hit wonders in their junior or senior years, and most of these kids are already doing great things in other areas of their lives — sports, academics, and clubs and other organizations. To them, working on the newspaper or yearbook is a “fun” and challenging activity. For many, it is a high school bucket-list item to be crossed off before graduating and moving on to college.

My editors, writers, photographers, and designers are a little different. They live and breathe the work they do. For many, it is their varsity sport. When they graduate, many of them are being accepted into prestigious programs and interning at national publications, simply because they have the confidence and the skills to succeed, right out of high school.

Any initiative that is put in place to improve our schools — whether that is regarding safety, academics, overall performance, or wellness, must be given the same kind of chance to shift the thinking in the culture of the school and create an environment of success, leadership, and mentorship. Short-sighted programs, or 1-2-year initiatives, simply don’t have the time to be effective and change the culture of the school from one of defeat to one of independence and self-confidence.

Unfortunately, many of our programs are data-driven, where year-end statistics are published in local and regional papers, pinning school systems against others in some kind of race to the top.

Who can get there first, in the shortest amount of time possible?

We then celebrate our results, pat ourselves on the backs, and marvel in our accomplishments.

It reminds me of our professional sports teams who “buy” the best players for a year or two to win a championship. Although a typical sports team, such as baseball, has 25 players on its squad, a mere handful are the ones who get the highest scores. Then, after the goal is accomplished and the trophy is hoisted in to the air, the team disintegrates in the seasons that follow. The big-name players move on (or graduate, in the sense of education), and the team is left with players (students) where little investment was ever made.

If education reform is really going to work, we need programs and projects that create a total shift in the school’s culture, where empowerment, self-confidence, and success are the main focus from the very beginning. We cannot be so data-driven that we “give the ball” to the few individuals who are really going to make us look great and get us to the top faster than any other school system.

If you invest in all children and empower each and every one of them with the opportunity to understand and experience independence and self-confidence, you will get your rewards in good time.

And the great news? Those rewards will be available year after year to all children in that system.

Take the time and find the projects that are the “best fit” for your school and your children, then take the time to implement them fully and allow them to work beyond the 3-, 4-, or 5-year cycle of your school. Put trust in them, and in your children.

It will be a great day when, honestly, all of your children are hoisting that trophy high in the air.