Power by Proxy Part 2 – Malcolm Rivers

Experts have to make themselves special. “Who are you to teach me?” is the rational question of a discerning consumer. Accordingly, SD/MA (self-defense and martial arts) instructors find ways to reflect expertise: certifications, ranks, or stints as violence professionals. Awhile back I wrote a piece called “Power By Proxy” warning students of the tendency to thoughtlessly surrender power to chosen gurus, believing in the osmotic absorption of their instructor’s perceived potency. But that dynamic is almost always a two-way street; it’s not just students at the altar of assumed badassery. Martial training aims to empower, sometimes requiring resources held by these experts who, logically, must have more power than their students. This reasonable assumption often festers, producing a toxic social ponzi scheme: the power hoard.

For many instructors, the power hoard begins as a quiet addiction: they start drinking their own kool-aid. Suddenly, their power over students is all they have and they need it. What else are they when there are no more bones to break, ranks to earn, or competitions to dominate? So, they make people like them as special and different as possible because, surely, power is a finite resource. Besides, the more power they have, the better they can use it to help students, right? Their charges need them to be powerful so they can benefit others!

I’ve seen power hoarding dynamics so often that I didn’t notice it until I felt myself start exhibiting them. I started very quietly assuming that I was somehow different than students who’d grown up in less volatile environments or hadn’t spent time professionally babysitting inebriated adult adolescents. My few stories made me feel powerful as I watched students’ reactions to my narration. It felt good to be special, even if my being special had nothing to do with making them stronger.

You see it everywhere. Youtube videos explain how helpless women are; coaches sell their training as the only path to power; instructors chortle as they condition students to weakness and humiliation. Every once in a while, I see it in person: an instructor egotistically punking someone. I went to an active shooter seminar where one instructor threatened to “kick the shit out of” a student after spending most of the day overcompensating with her sport grappling background. Later, I performed a gun disarm on the instructor and explained to her that the weapon was out of battery. She hadn’t known what “out of battery” meant…at an active shooter seminar. The worst exhibition, though, was at another (surprise, surprise) active shooter seminar run by former military operators.

The main instructor began showing footage of shootings without much analysis as part of a ploy to evoke emotional reactions from students. When role players stormed the safety briefing, a student was publicly humiliated for ineffectual resistance, though hiding and running weren’t great options. Throughout the scenarios, participants were prohibited from resisting the shooters physically, told repeatedly how often they “died”, and sent into tactically improbable scenarios for which they were conditioned to fail with little regard for the effects. Within 2 minutes of the final “lockdown” drill, I was outside the staging area, waiting out the end of the scenario. We’d been told repeatedly that we couldn’t leave because, apparently, this was an active killer situation on a submarine! I was reminded to go back in, literally toward a couple of well-armed murderers, after achieving the theoretical goal of both the exercise and the situation it sought to simulate: getting away alive. Upon reentering, a commando loudly informed me that I’d been shot dead while sprinting away. I kept running. My mindset is simple: you’ll have to prove to me I’m not immortal. I understand how significant crappy conditioning can be and refuse to let it in. I also know at least a couple of people who found out they’d been shot when they stopped running so the realism angle wasn’t compelling. Why it made sense for me to pretend I was dead was beyond me. At the end, our central trainer offered the icing on the cake: “too many of you died, more than any other group; but, you know, good job.” Most of the experience was a power hoard. Lines were drawn between high-speed operators and mere civilians; resistance was restricted, prohibited, or punished; students were reminded more of failures and “deaths” than anything else. All we learned was these guys were badasses and we weren’t. I see the same things in everything from Krav Maga intro classes to MMA tutorials.

If these dynamics existed in environments without stacked decks, my attitude would be different. But most self-defense participants are tacitly acknowledging weakness and handing experts power to shape them. Anything that doesn’t fit directly into empowering them is bullshit. These are folks, sometimes with open wounds, who are making themselves vulnerable. Stop making yourself special because you’re supposedly better at violence. If you’re special, so is their future attacker, current abuser, or other threat and it *will* make it harder for them to move. With that said, it’s an understandable phenomenon.

The road to power hoarding is wide and well-lit. All it takes is some unexamined epistemology and a class of neophytes. For example: you want an attentive respectful class. Occasionally someone’s skeptical, disturbed, or even bored by your content or style. Their disrespect threatens to derail the learning of others. So, in a moment of irritation, you show them just how misplaced their self-superior attitudes are. But, in doing so, you’ve failed. A professional conflict manager, so skilled he’d been empowered to teach, couldn’t handle a minor blow to the ego or see past a façade to a student’s needs? You’ve dis-empowered one student and likely alienated several others. Depending on the crowd, this will read as obvious insecurity and/or petty tyranny. Or, worse, they’ll assume that “this is just how powerful people are” and look to become petty tyrants themselves. If you’re not careful, this becomes a trend. You’ll leave squashed students in your wake and collect acolytes, eager to bask in your glow.

To my fellow “experts”: get over yourself. A friend, well acquainted with lethal conflict (because that’s the only reason to listen to someone, right?) always balked at the idea of anyone being special because of a title, rank, former job, or violent history. His response? “Who cares what you did a decade ago? What are you doing NOW?” I take that to mean: make sure whatever you’re doing is contributing, no matter how “special” you are or were. True teaching is much more about empathy than knowledge or even experience. Get better at it so you’re adding value beyond “guts and glory” stories or endlessly reminding students of membership in a martial clique.

Be human and vulnerable to your audience. Use your power to continually show and tell students they can be just as capable as you remember yourself being. Many instructors tacitly or overtly communicate that their students could never “take” them. This is laughable (no one’s found monopolies on physics nor mortality) but students pick up on it and think you’re another species. You’re not. Show them that so when they meet someone more dangerous than you, they’ll remember that everyone bleeds. Be secure enough in whoever you are (or were) that you don’t need to maintain the invincibility aura. If you’re worthy of your status, knowing that even they can beat you will make them stronger, making you more valuable.

To the schools, make the accolades mean something. If you’ve got tokens or talismans, make them empowering to students and not just reminders of gulfs between social strata. Focus on creative problem solving and not paint by numbers solutions. Stop punishing people for being better than they should be. Power isn’t finite; share it. Hoarding power doesn’t make you strong, it comes across insecure and needy. Show students how powerful they can be, it can only make you better.

Power by Proxy – Malcolm Rivers

Indoctrination in self-defense and martial arts can be pretty amazing. I’ve watched strong, skilled, well-trained grown men and women convince themselves some guy they’ve known an hour was an undefeatable titan of battle. This phenomenon is incredible and a huge component is the perception of significant experience with violence. This has led to the rise of that character ubiquitous in self-defense industry: Billy Badass.

Billy Badass sells the DVD’s with the skulls and scary music with a history of violence as extensive as it is unverifiable. He’s got it all figured out while the rest of these SD/MA (self-defense and martial arts) pussies are doing stuff that would never work in The Streets™. Quick reminder of the obvious: experience matters. Always. But, metaphorically, having a heart and brain doesn’t mean legs aren’t useful; having been there and done that isn’t the only qualification for empowering others. Thankfully, there are experienced, skilled instructors out here doing incredible work, many of them writing for this publication. But there are also folk doing…other things. In all things and with all people: caveat emptor.

Let’s start with one crucial understanding: whatever alleged history your instructor has, you weren’t there. The power he derived from surviving isn’t yours to use. Moreover, all you know, often, is who he markets himself to be. Beyond the flat-out hoaxes lies the natural predisposition toward embellishment, especially when coupled with the temptation of fiduciary gain. And, to be fair, we, as consumers, support all of this because instructors are only human. The cults of personality we build around them exacerbate the problem.

Students need someone to believe in. Two central premises of the industry read: ‘someone else knows the dark world of violence and can teach you its ways’ and ‘we don’t know enough to teach ourselves.’ Thus, we turn to people with long, bloody resumes; reasonably assuming that experience is crucial but ignoring the symbiotic dynamics of seeking power by proxy. Students laud an instructor’s history and presumed capacities, as if, somehow, we could attain his strength osmotically. We can’t. We turn to hero worship and create a backward power dynamic that enhances instructors over students. We give them the limitless authority of ‘unimpeachable experience’, ignoring the responsibility to question or challenge. In doing so we make violent people special, further exacerbating the power imbalance. How can I expect to avoid, deter, or defeat current predators when I can’t even disagree with my instructor, a former predator? This level of indoctrination is tacitly or overtly encouraged by many instructors as their egos swell. Because, apparently, someone has found a monopoly on violence.

The cults of personality are problems; instructors aren’t the point of self-defense or martial arts training. Decent instruction is about the students and therein lies the rub: when building up students isn’t the focus, egotistical nonsense is much easier to get lost in. If our friend Billy survived hundreds of violent incidents…as a 6’3 290-pound professional in his mid-20’s, what he was able to do in his heyday shouldn’t mean much to the 5’3 115-pound 50-year-old woman he’s teaching. Even when an instructor’s experience is verifiable, the plural of anecdote isn’t “proof.” If he’s handled 20 attempted stabbings, he certainly knows more than most. But that may not be enough to create a model that applies to different people from other backgrounds with varying frames of mind, skillsets, and target profiles. And, beyond the difficulties of calculating experience’s value, other considerations remain.

Many experienced and effective SD/MA instructors have very little experience doing what they teach: defending themselves from predatory criminals as civilians. That distinction is important because having been a cop, crook, or bouncer carries over…sorta. If your instructor was a pro, his legal and ethical machinations were likely appropriate for his context…not yours. If he’s smart, he’ll encourage you to think for yourself and do your own research. If not, he’ll try to directly apply whatever lessons he’s learned in a (likely) much more extreme circumstance directly to your life. It won’t end well. Moreover, having a history of violence has nothing to do with teaching.

Good SD instruction is, at its core, emotionally engineering people to empower themselves. It’s creating stronger people. There is a lot of complexity to that and capacity for violence is only one piece. Thus, a violent resume is far from enough. In some cases, whatever made an instructor able to survive his heyday was natural, or part of his upbringing, or so deeply ingrained that he wouldn’t even know how to explain it. There are plenty of people who can teach but can’t do. There are also people who can do but can’t teach. This is not a rejection of experiential knowledge or expertise, it’s a reminder that choosing an instructor with a “history” as your idol does not preclude the capacity for being wrong or ineffective at transmitting ideas. And worshipping at the altar of experiences you didn’t have; and, often, can’t even verify he had; isn’t always the best way to make yourself safer and stronger.

Ultimately, a healthy dose of skepticism wouldn’t hurt any of us. Instructors, consider the power dynamic you exhibit with your students and whether you’re empowering them or more focused on you. Students, remember that your instructor is a person. If he’s experienced and not an idiot, he knows that he’s got a lot to offer but needs more than a history to help you become more effective. Most importantly, remember that training is about you gaining power, not basking in the power of someone else, no matter how cool their background sounds.

Caveat emptor and all that.

Boundary Setting and Anti-Social Subcultures – Malcolm Rivers

Recently, I asked Malcolm Rivers to apply the concepts of the Everyday Boundary Setting Matrix to his understanding of inner-city boundary setting for urban youth. The following article is his response.  The Matrix is a flexible framework that can be used to help understand and teach the basic elements of boundary setting and apply them to specific environments. – Erik Kondo


I like the ideas and expression here a lot. I think of particular use are visuals. The boundary setting matrix is a great tool that really encapsulates the ideas involved. I like the boundary zones a lot too. The underlying adjustment that I think would be useful is based on the interplay between peer relationships and institutional relationships.

In many ways, schools are microcosms for society so the model I’m using is based on an inner-city school and interactions with the neighborhood. Within that school you have school rules and peer rules which are comparable to society’s laws and street law. The difficulty is that for students, peer culture is often based on variations of real street law. For all intents and purposes, society, as represented by social workers, teachers, cops, etc. only visits and the networks that dictate street law and peer relationships live in those communities, making them, in many ways, the true dominant force. Young people in those communities might spend 6 or 8 hours in school but have to spend the remaining 18 or 16 hours in environments dominated by street law. Moreover, school and society often can’t protect these young people from consequences of peer/street code violations which often carry significantly higher penalties than most that institutions can dish out. Thus, respect, as understood in those communities, is a crucially important currency that can literally be the difference between life and death and is governed by different factors.

The version of respect that exists in these environments is based on a couple of factors: willingness to resist or stand on principle, adherence to cultural rules, goodwill and respect for others, and determination to enforce boundaries. Of particular importance is boundary enforcement, which, in many ways, lays the foundation for the rest because respect isn’t so much earned as enforced. Due to various forms of social disorganization, young men have outsized influence in inner cities, leading to environments where respect is an invaluable commodity due to its role in the young men’s competition for dominance. This makes the concept of mutual respect a harder sell because the individual or group with the most respect “wins” and respect can only be earned by enforcing their boundaries or violating others’. If a mutual respect has been established, the first person or group willing to violate that respect, if successful, can shift the balance of power toward their favor. Thus, challenging the boundaries of others is frequently a good way to grow resources (peer respect, etc.) and can even be a form of preemptive defense. Contempt borne of underenforcement can lead to loss of resources or even something more permanent, thus, the willingness to enforce boundaries becomes paramount in this version of respect.

One of the elements that affects this matrix, however, is the role of noncombatants: those who are, for whatever reason, not participating in the pursuit of peer dominance. Most of these noncombatants don’t have much in the way of respect and are more ignored than anything else which can make them safer but keeps them powerless, should a combatant turn their attention in their direction.

“Trying” and “testing” are a big part of the aforementioned competition in these schools and neighborhoods. The idea is that in many interactions, even with authority figures, young people test the boundaries of others, looking to see whether they’ll enforce them and to what degrees. It’s an aggressive way to establish a pecking order or to “score points” off of someone they perceive as weak. The additional difficulty is that, as a result, giving respect to get it can be seen as weakness, especially when combined with a perceived inability or unwillingness to enforce boundaries. This perception of weakness can invite a greater number of respect violations which necessitate more regular, or more extreme, enforcement. On some level it’s almost beneficial for folk working and living in these environments to be tested so as to give them a chance to be seen enforcing their boundaries because the perception, at least, is that everyone is watching and looking for someone to “score points” off of.

In many communities and schools, the perception that the peer group is watching to see how an individual reacts and to assess the level of respect to give them is a significant factor. It’s this consideration, the balance of society/school’s rules and peer/street law, that causes individuals who know they’ll be caught and face consequences to use violence to enforce boundaries anyway. This seems ridiculous from the perspective of the larger school/society but when the goals are adjusted for peer respect, it makes a lot more sense. If the peer audience values the willingness to enforce boundaries and stand on principle, even in the face of consequences, using violence, even when you know you’ll be caught, makes perfect sense. Violence in these instances is just another form of communication to the victim and the larger peer audience: “here’s what I’m willing to do because someone violated my boundaries. No one can protect you from my wrath, so leave my boundaries alone.” In such cases, “overenforcement” is a variable concept, because extreme violence as part of boundary enforcement can be beneficial, depending on which matrix we’re considering: peer/street or school/society. This can lead to inability to code switch and contextually inappropriate communication and enforcement like the woman making a scene in a grocery store, etc.

Thus, the boundary setting matrix works perfectly but is goal dependent. If a young person wants the respect of peers who’re associated with the types of subcultures prevalent in inner cities, their boundary setting matrix, by necessity, will look different than a peer whose focus is on success in the larger school/society, etc. The big challenge is finding ways to balance the two boundary matrices so that the young people don’t have to choose between putting themselves in danger with peers or sacrificing their futures in society. Another potential solution is to significantly damaging the street/peer hierarchy to establish the school/state/society as the dominant force in the environment more directly. This derails the insertion of street consequences into school environments and such. As for respect for institutions, I think you hit the nail on the head. Ultimately, those balances of communication and enforcement contribute to institutions remaining functional and not breeding significant contempt.

Beyond the Cul-De-Sac – Malcolm Rivers

The first time I encountered the principles of self-protection I was very young. The house had been shot into for the first time, giving my bedroom an oddly soothing breeze, and my father and I were walking to our corner store. On the way, he explained the importance of vigilance and comportment. We encountered a group of young men standing outside the store, affiliated with some gang or other-the names were always changing. My father made a point of raising his voice to an off-putting volume and maintaining eye contact with each one. We were outnumbered, outgunned and unwelcome but the young men were perplexed by his boldness and let us pass without incident. As we walked home dad explained “the appearance of weakness invites aggression.” I pondered that, as long as a young child reasonably would, and came to the conclusion I would try to be strong too.

A combination of divine intervention, awareness, and savvy allies kept me alive and out of trouble until I grew up and had the opportunity to work with young people, frequently from worse situations. All throughout, I tried to reconcile the realities we’d faced with what I saw in  self-defense industry. It looked confusing. Often instructors didn’t come across as aware of the types of violence I’d seen: their answers were too simple, their techniques too complex to function in that reality. Later I realized the reason for the disparity: most “self-defense” was the security blanket business: selling things that don’t work to people who don’t need them.

Valiantly Defending the Suburbs

I found that even solid self-defense instruction wasn’t built for life outside the suburbs. I saw instructors who’d served as violence professionals explain the primacy of escape, knowing that there was little likelihood their students would ever see their assailants again. This didn’t jive with the world my students lived in or how I’d grown up. We all knew that the issue often wasn’t the initial interaction, it was the aftermath. When challenged, I’d heard students credibly reference armed reactions from friends or family and if I’d been robbed or shot growing up, my more serious friends would have…addressed the problem. The first encounter would not have been the last: one side evening the score, the other pre-empting assumed retaliation. Most instructors seemed to have little to no interest in the aftermath: when revenge brought the dulcet tones of automatic fire to a family dinner.  Why not? Because that stuff is messy and self-defense in the suburbs is a whole lot easier to sell.

The Security Blanket Factory

People in nicer places are a much better demographic for the security blankets sold by SD instructors; they’ve more to lose and are more likely to be scared shitless by largely imaginary threats. More importantly, people of means have the resources to make “self-defense” work for them. They can afford the thousand-dollar “deadly technique” weekend class, the DVD set, the CCW license, the lawyer on retainer, and all the rest. Though they’re more likely to get hit by lightning than bullets, their unjustifiable fear persists, often because they have minimal exposure to life outside Mayberry. Folk in rougher areas are a lot harder to teach: they tend to have experience, a low bullshit tolerance, and more complex problems. Taking a “fence” and pre-emptively knocking someone out might work well for them the first time but when they live two blocks away from the predator and his friends, events might play out differently, the next time. Most importantly, folk from violent neighborhoods know a harsh truth that uproots significant amounts of self-defense theory: you can’t blindly trust the state to keep you safe.

Fairly Tales of Super Cops

Put simply: most self-defense instructors I’ve met have levels of faith in the state that confuse the hell out of me. Some are in law enforcement or corrections, with a vested interest or a legitimate belief in the system. Others feel it would be irresponsible to talk about when they wouldn’t get law enforcement involved. Some are probably just trying to avoid accusations of impropriety or lawsuits. Regardless, it seemed strange to me because of how I’ve seen law enforcement handle violence. Early in my stay in D.C. a rival crew began a shootout with the drug dealers next door. I remember hearing sirens approach around 45 minutes later. The precinct was 2 minutes away and, apparently, responded to other crimes in the interim. Nothing surprising there; I’d learned early that depending completely on the state to handle potential threats was dangerous and stupid: they’re mostly people with jobs and no responsibility (or interest) to protect you. More important than being jaded with law enforcement’s utility, was learning that keeping yourself safe required careful balance of the legal and the practical.

Legal v. Practical

The American justice system at the municipal level is a reactive organization designed to catch and prosecute criminals, not to preemptively protect citizens. Often folk who used the law to handle all their problems found themselves in violation of street code and facing enemies who knew the law well enough to get around or ignore it. Shunning, beatings, or more dire consequences ensued. Folk who focused too much on the practical found themselves in unenviable lifestyles filled with paranoia, dead friends, and prison sentences. Often what began as protecting their own evolved into a path they’d never escape. Those able to achieve this tenuous balance developed complex skills to manage interactions.

Survival Skills

In most dangerous neighborhoods, even the citizens know the predators and their politics, helping them survive encounters. Young people I’ve worked were always well versed in the in’s and out’s of these environments: one teen planned his bus routes based on time of day and conflicts between rival crews. Family and friends of mine have also used knowledge of the landscape to help negotiate with predators. Hierarchies, however unstable, absolutely exist and reaching out to members or affiliates of influence can also help address problems in the making or find terms of negotiation to avoid bloodshed.

As these kids traverse the environment, they learn to manage their presentation. The image one presents is paramount and the savvy learn to develop a manner that keeps them off predators’ menus without looking like a threat to the foodchain. Once, at 16, I had to change my shoelaces during a bus ride to another neighborhood after a call from a friend indicated the colors were wrong.  Some teens use social media threat displays like posing with guns to ward off higher order predators. One boy began representing his gang at 8 years old because of the murder of his uncle, admitting in a moment of vulnerability that he felt stronger with a “crew” to back him. Knowing how to cultivate and maintain an image to keep the crowd from identifying a new victim, or new threat, is an essential skill.

The strategic minding of one’s business is as important as air in violent neighborhoods. Knowing which conflicts, yours or others, are essential and which can be ignored can diminish the number of engagements, and thus the risk, without the appearance of weakness. In a recent discussion, students openly admitted a refusal to intervene in conflicts or get police involved. Many had personal examples of folk who’d learned this lesson the hard way. In these environments, the refusal to assist law enforcement and theoretical “bystander effect” are frequently products of careful consideration and years of watching the mistakes of others. Because I’d seen the consequences of such calculus, instructors and students in the self-defense community always confused me when they waxed poetic about sheepdogging and the like. I wondered how many of them had ever smelled the blood on a wolf’s breath.

When legal options are minimal, having allies that can contribute overwhelming force makes a huge difference. In many tough areas, even the most upstanding citizen is related or connected to an individual or group ready to do violence on their behalf. The deterrence of knowing that someone’s gang banger cousin is ready to kill in retaliation is sometimes enough to squelch a more serious conflict.

Final Thoughts

Very few instructors are willing to acknowledge the complexity of regular civilian engagement with violence or the fact that many innocents are forced to manage these engagements, without the resources of their suburban peers, from a very early age. Coaches and sensei wax platitudinous about how anyone regularly defending themselves needs a change in lifestyle without considering how many decent people can’t visit the money tree in back yard to buy a new life. Study of self-defense has taught me a lot, much of it retroactively, but it’s time for the field to expand beyond well entrenched boundaries of the cul-de-sac.

The Other School to Prison Pipeline – Malcolm Rivers

It started like it always had: words exchanged between two parties, all part of rituals of posturing and dominance. The dispute followed the conventional script but ended rather abruptly. Uncharacteristically, the usual aggressor seemed to flare up and, for once, declined to take the conflict to its natural conclusion. This time he had a plan.

He waited. The routine was consistent and well established: we spent the first hours of the day in one location, walked them in lines to use the bathroom, and then brought them to lunch. Despite our need to supervise, policy required us to wait outside the bathrooms. It was at that point that I heard the thumping.

The sound was loud but so muffled that it took me a second to register. By the time I’d decided to ignore protocol and made it through the door, grunts of pain and exertion joined the thumping. The two of them were in the stall, one slamming the other’s head against the wall. He’d sat on the issue for several hours, waiting for an opportunity to get make his move without interference.

He’d set it up perfectly, like a pro, and at only 7 years old.

The assault wasn’t even the issue. Though it’s troubling that one second grader had set up another for a carefully planned and executed beating; factoring in witnesses, transition points, and even rules that prevented us from intervening; the bigger problem is what happened afterward: nothing. The boy had followed through on a premeditated assault and there were no consequences or changes; nothing happened. He’d learned, at an impressionable age, that what he’d done works.

Every day in schools all over the country students, staff, and families have similar experiences. Students use violence against each other or staff members; destroy property; and much, much worse and nothing happens. The problems with this dynamic are numerous and complex but there is one central element that supersedes the rest: the bait and switch that society, through the education system, subjects students to. Students spend as many as many as 12 years being conditioned to believe that the system doesn’t have teeth…until it does.

I’ve spent the past 14 years working in education in a variety of capacities. I’ve been a teacher’s assistant, mentor, tutor, coach, teacher, intervention specialist, contracted guest instructor, and professional development director. I’ve worked with, taught, coached, or mentored at every grade level. I’ve had some incredible experiences throughout, but my time as an elementary school teacher in a predominantly poor, low performing school in one of the worst school districts in the country was probably the most challenging and definitely the most illuminating.

For many kids, their first contact with outside authority arrives in the form of school staff. Teachers, principals, counselors, and coaches form students’ baseline expectations for extrafamilial authority in their formative years. When the school environments condition them to believe that those extrafamilial authority figures had no power to provide real rewards, or real consequences, they learn an extremely dangerous lesson that is repeated, for years, until they encounter other, more emphatic, authority structures like the criminal justice system.

Students as young as kindergarteners went on destructive rampages in school only to be ignored or placated. One young boy walked around destroying everything he could get his little hands on and was given a lollipop for his trouble. It worked…until the next day when he, understandably assuming breaking things was the easiest way to get free candy, shattered a window. He’d learned that most of the time, especially for the students with extreme behaviors, the school couldn’t or wouldn’t do very much. The only real leverage schools had was directly connected to what parents would do to deal with their children’s behaviors. So, when parents did nothing or even encouraged disruptive, destructive, or violent behavior, the school was left in the lurch: stuck with a student they had no leverage with and a family that would do nothing to help. I saw repeated cases of violent or destructive behavior that, under any other circumstances, could easily derail their lives very early. The student who strangled a teacher with a telephone wire in third grade and nothing happened. The student who pulled a box cutter on another student and nothing happened. The students who sent a teacher to the hospital with a fracture and nothing happened. All of these students learned, consciously and subconsciously, that they could be violent and destructive and those in authority would not act or might even reward the behavior.

Much has been made of the “school to prison pipeline” the set of practices that supposedly “criminalizes” children by introducing them into juvenile and adult legal systems at increasingly younger ages. What I’ve seen and experienced was the opposite: a school to prison pipeline built by a profound disconnection between students’ actions in school settings and realistic consequences. The students I worked with were conditioned for years to believe that everything from stomping each other out to sexual assault would be met with formalized bluster and bravado but no actual consequences.

The reasons for this dynamic aren’t all that complicated: the education system is in the business of shining shit and calling it gold. Teachers, administrators, and other staff understand that many, if not most, of their efforts to address any but the most destructive of student behaviors will be met with platitudes or unhelpful nonsense, or just ignored. Many bureaucrats of the educational hierarchy, serving politicians whose only interest is the perception of an ignorant public, institute policies that hide, ignore, or placate these students, further conditioning them to believe that breaking things and hurting people are the easiest ways to get a reward or out of the classroom. These young people learn that violent criminal behavior is a safe bet, or even a good idea, and school becomes a staging area for street issues or a fun place to throw a tantrum. As soon as the students cross the threshold to the outside world their conditioning will get them hurt or in trouble.

As the education system continues to churn out students who participate in, witness, or are victims of violent behavior for years with little to no consequences, it’s no wonder than many of these young people find themselves in trouble with the law or otherwise have difficulty being productive members of society. Ultimately, it’s the responsibility of families and friends to bring children up in ways that will promote their safety and development but schools can play positive roles in keeping students from being conditioned to take dangerous behaviors lightly or at least avoid facilitating a bait and switch that sets students up for devastating consequences.