Willful Defiance

Dr. James Emery White | Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary | Monday, April 14, 2014

Willful Defiance

The 58-second cell phone clip of a Santa Monica teacher wrestling a student to the floor has gone viral.

Here’s what happened:

Mark Black was teaching science when he admonished a student for walking in and out of his classroom.  He soon learned that it had something to do with drugs.  When Black told the student he was going to call security, the student went up to Black and began to assault him.  Black, the school’s wrestling coach, responded with a series of wrestling moves and restrained the student on the classroom floor until security could arrive.

Initially, the student’s family was consoled by the district superintendent and Black was chastised and put on leave. 

Then came a flood of emails, coupled with an eruption on social media – fed by parents and students alike – expressing indignation over Black’s treatment and support of his forced reaction.  A rally was held on Sunday dubbed “Community Peace Gathering celebrating Mark Black and all teachers who step up for their students.”  Tens of thousands have “liked” a “We Support Coach Black” Facebook page.

It’s seemed to do the trick. 

This past week, police ended up arresting the student for possessing marijuana and a weapon (a box cutter) on campus, and threatening and using “force or violence against a school employee.” 

So what’s the real problem here?

As the Los Angeles Times reported, it’s become a symbol of everything that’s wrong with public schools:  “Defiant students. Overwhelmed teachers. Feckless administrators. Knee-jerk policies with no room for common sense.”

But those are symptoms, not the disease.

Here’s the disease:

Many public schools – including Los Angeles United campuses – aren’t allowed to suspend students anymore for what is deemed “willful defiance.”

If you’re a teacher, you might as well wave the white flag, because it is precisely the matter of willful defiance that shapes a child.  This is Parenting 101.  Children have to be disciplined, and the key to knowing when to provide that discipline is when you do not have mere childish irresponsibility (that’s a developmental issue), but when there is willful disobedience.

If you are not even allowed to address such defiance, then there can be no authority.

It reminds me of an interview with a juvenile court judge I once heard on public radio.  He said that in his court, he had seen violent juvenile crimes triple over recent years.  The reporter asked him why he thought that was happening.  He replied, "First, kids lost the admiration of authority.  Then, they lost respect for authority.  Now, they've lost the fear of authority."

Of course they have.  You can demonstrate willful defiance of authority without penalty.  To be sure, no one likes to see a teacher wrestling with a student on the floor.  But the problem wasn’t with the teacher.

It was with a culture that turns a blind eye to willful defiance.

James Emery White


“Uproar over classroom scuffle reflects a profession under siege,” Sandy Banks, Los Angeles Times, April 11, 2014, read online.

Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones, is now available on Amazon.  To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world.  Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.

Willful Defiance