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What Went Wrong In McKinney

Rebecca Steinitz: A group of teenagers can be a powder keg, which an adult can light -- or not. In this video screenshot, police officer Eric Casebolt pushes a teenage girl to the ground. (youtube)
Rebecca Steinitz: A group of teenagers can be a powder keg, which an adult can light -- or not. In this video screenshot, police officer Eric Casebolt pushes a teenage girl to the ground. (youtube)
This article is more than 4 years old.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from parenting tantrumming toddlers and righteously indignant teens, it’s that the reaction of the adult is everything. It seems, however, that McKinney, Texas, police officer Eric Casebolt missed this lesson.

I learned it first when my daughters were young and my husband worked nights and weekends. Inevitably, one girl would splash the other in the bath, squabbles would erupt over property rights to Mommy’s lap, or a headstrong 3-year-old would decide it was time to practice go-limp civil disobedience instead of going to bed. When I, at the end of my solo-parenting rope, erupted in frustration, all familial hell broke loose. But if I stayed calm, responded in measured tones with reasonable solutions, or even just hugged the offender, we all deescalated and went on our merry way.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from parenting ... it’s that the reaction of the adult is everything.

I learned it again — and again and again — as the squabbles and protests grew up with the children, and my responses had the same effect. If I yelled as loudly as they did, or stomped out of the room, or slammed the door, all of which I have, alas, been known to do, the situation broke down in recriminations, shouts and sobs. But if I kept my wits about me, nodded sympathetically or disciplined calmly but firmly, we soon returned at least to détente, if not to conciliation.

Just as parents learn this lesson, so do those who work with children and young people. In classrooms across the country, unruffled teachers have unruffled students, frantic teachers have frantic students. A friend who is a high school teacher told me that during his first year of teaching, he would get angry at student misbehavior, until he realized that just made everything worse. As he learned to stay calm, his classroom stayed calm.

Some police officers learn this lesson too, but not enough.

Like millions of people across America, I watched the video of what happened last Friday in McKinney. Like all but a very few, I don’t know what really preceded it, though I’ve read newspaper accounts and Facebook posts from the right and left, the one focused on rambunctious mobs of black teenagers, the other on racist haranguing white adults. But I do know what I saw, which was an adult escalating a situation.

The video begins with black and white teenagers walking away from the camera, noisily but undramatically. Then two white policemen run into the frame, Casebolt executes an action film-worthy, if seemingly unnecessary, forward roll, and the sound erupts in screams and shouts.

After a couple of boys politely return a flashlight to the other police officer, who responds firmly but also politely, Casebolt explodes back into the frame. He shoves black teenagers down to the ground, points his nightstick at the camera and other black teenagers, shouts profanities, and eventually pulls his gun, tosses a black girl to the ground, and handcuffs her. In other words, all hell breaks loose — or rather, Casebolt breaks all hell loose.

Like a toddler, a group of teenagers can be a powder keg, which an adult can light — or not.

When race becomes a dividing point, especially between white adults and black teenagers, you get a potent mix of fear, anxiety and bravado...

White or black, urban or suburban, large numbers of teenagers tend toward the loud and boisterous, and many adults want only to avoid them. When race becomes a dividing point, especially between white adults and black teenagers, you get a potent mix of fear, anxiety and bravado saturated with the long history of American prejudice, which moves a situation that much closer to ignition.

But that’s all the more reason for adults to keep their cool. Not to do nothing, like the white men who stood by menacingly as Casebolt knelt on the back of a black teenage girl, nor to aggressively assert their authority, like the white parent who allegedly yelled racial slurs and got into a video-captured hair-pulling fight with a black teenager, but to respond with the thoughtful, calm, appropriately firm words and actions that put out fires, rather than fan their flames.

I don’t know if Eric Casebolt has children of his own, but if he does, I’d like to think he’s learned to manage their temper tantrums and squabbles. I only wish he’d learned to apply that lesson at work.

Related:

Rebecca Steinitz Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor and literacy consultant.

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