Image from viral video of confrontation
Image from CNN report of viral video of confrontation in Washington.

News of the confrontation between Covington Catholic High School students, the drumming Native American tribal elder and members of the Black Hebrew Israelites during a march in Washington has led to an often acrimonious debate among Americans.

People have generally taken sides based on where they stand along the political spectrum. Donald Trump supporters see the media unfairly attacking the high school students because they chose to wear red MAGA hats, while the left sees a smirking, entitled preppy bully. Surprisingly, I’ve seen few comments that address the role that the school’s adult chaperones played in properly advising students to act in a manner appropriate to the circumstances.

In light of the national debate currently going on about the value and worth of K-12 teachers, this unfortunate confrontation should encourage everyone to understand how valuable a school teacher can be in guiding students to make the right decision. It’s not always about getting students to score high on standardized tests. Sometimes being an effective teacher is more about imparting important life lessons, pointing out such time-honored values as respect, discretion and humility, and displaying good judgement in a way that will be long remembered by students.

As a recently retired high school teacher, I couldn’t help but imagine myself in that situation—a teacher supervising a large group of high schoolers on a D.C. field trip.  In doing so, I asked myself how would I have handled that situation. What could I have done to diffuse the situation? How would I have ensured my students, my high school, and my community were seen in the best light? Most importantly, what would I have done to ensure I set the best example for my students—one worth remembering when they found themselves in similar situations later in life?

From all of the accounts I’ve read, when asked what to do, those supervising these students advised them to counter the Black Hebrew Israelites’ verbal harassment with school spirit cheers. Though some people have accused these students of being provocative right from the start by wearing red MAGA hats, in my opinion the decision to conduct loud, boisterous school cheers is where the Covington Catholic High School wheels went completely off the rails.

Perhaps the adults believed school cheering would be interpreted as mildly amusing or entertaining, but it’s not hard to see why this cheering (as depicted on numerous videos) appeared provocative in this particular setting. Such rowdy behavior might work to elicit school spirit at an athletic event, but in this situation it predictably led to a rise in tension, further encouraging these students to move on to such context-inappropriate gestures as the tomahawk chop and the defiant stand-your-ground pose exercised by the one teen.

I’d like to think that had I been the teacher supervising this trip, I would have prepped my students with the following advice: “If you insist on wearing MAGA hats, expect to receive some grief from people who don’t agree with your political views. Please ignore any catcalls, no matter how harsh they may be. Don’t engage them. You have nothing to gain by such interaction.”

I also would like to think that had my students subsequently come up to me and whined, “Those people over there are calling us bad names,” I would have responded by saying, “Just ignore them. In fact, let’s make it easier on everyone and move to the other side of the mall until the bus comes. Let’s do it quickly and quietly, with no drama.”

Finally, I’d like to think any teacher at my school (no matter their political affiliation) would have done the same thing. It’s what they get paid to do when assigned supervision duties.

This kind of proper role modeling won’t earn national headlines. Demonstrating respect, discretion and humility will never get you a reality TV show, but parents should demand such behavior is ever-present in any school activity.

Steve Rodriguez is a retired Marine Corps officer and high school teacher who last taught at Olympian High School in Chula Vista.  

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