Cellphone videos of the violent arrest of an African-American girl in a South Carolina classroom spread quickly online last week, thrusting an ongoing heated debate about race, discipline, and the appropriate role of police in schools into the national spotlight.
The videos show Ben Fields, a local sheriff’s deputy who worked as a school resource officer at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C., knocking the unidentified high school student’s desk over as he grabbed her by the neck and shoulders, pulling her from her chair before throwing her across the room.
The FBI and the U.S. attorney’s office for South Carolina will investigate the incident for possible civil rights violations, the U.S. Department of Justice announced a day after the videos went viral. Fields was fired after an immediate internal investigation by his employer, the Richland County Sheriff’s Office.
“We would hope that physical force would be a last resort,” Sheriff Leon Lott said in a press conference. "[The student] wasn’t a danger at that point. She was just being disrespectful.”
But Lott denied allegations the incident was racially motivated. The incident wouldn’t have started if the girl hadn’t been defiant in the first place, he said.
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The girl and a classmate who challenged her arrest were both arrested on state charges of disrupting a school. The incident apparently started when the student in the video refused to leave the classroom with an administrator who was initially called after she was caught using her cell phone in class.
“Should [Fields] have ever been called there?” Lott asked at a press conference. “That’s something we’re going to talk to the school district about.”
The Richland County School District 2 will add more training about when it is and is not appropriate to involve a school resource officer in a discipline situation, said School Board Chairman James Manning, who called the videos “extremely disturbing.” In addition, the district will work with the sheriff’s office to develop better standards for screening and training school-based officers, he said.
The 27,000-student district, which is 59 percent black, had already assembled task forces focused on diversity and school discipline a year ago, Superintendent Debbie Hamm said at a news conference.
“How our community responds to this incident can become a teachable moment for all concerned,” Hamm said at a news conference. “We are sensitive to how these images have affected our community and most importantly our students and parents.”
Even before the district issued its response, civil rights and student advocacy groups argued that a law enforcement officer never should have been involved in a routine school discipline issue. And while the video is shocking to watch, it does not depict an isolated incident, they argued.
A video released in August by the American Civil Liberties Union that showed a school resource officer in a Kentucky district handcuffing a whimpering 8-year-old special education student also sparked widespread outrage. And countless other incidents occur regularly without any media scrutiny, the groups said.
International media coverage of the South Carolina arrest follows years of efforts by racial justice groups, student-led organizations, and even federal officials to halt what they call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Students, particularly those who are black and Hispanic, are too frequently funneled into the justice system as a result of overly punitive school discipline policies and poorly defined roles for law enforcement in educational settings, they argue.
“It’s one thing to explain it, but it’s another thing to really see it played out in real life and real time,” said Allison Brown, the executive director of the Communities for Just Schools Fund, which provides grants for local efforts to improve school climate and change school discipline policies. “I think it’s hard for people to believe the stories we tell.”
But seeing the officer’s “brutality” toward the student in a full classroom is a powerful visual, said Brown, who previously litigated civil rights cases on school discipline for the U.S. Department of Justice.
After the videos went viral, Brown’s organization called an emergency meeting with its grantees to discuss how to leverage the press coverage to bring attention to broader issues. Other organizations took similar steps.
“The video underscores the problem with police in schools,” Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis said in a statement. “Instead of de-escalating the situation, Deputy Ben Fields dehumanized and criminalized a black teenage girl. Current police culture has no place in our schools.”
After high-profile incidents of school violence, like the mass shootings at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School, lawmakers often call for increased security and police presence at schools. Schools also call upon school resource officers to respond to issues like gangs and drugs.
But some groups have said districts often don’t do enough to ensure the police in their buildings, who are often employed by outside law enforcement agencies, understand how to properly interact with students. This can lead to overly harsh discipline and arrests for relatively minor infractions, they say, a problem that disproportionately affects students of color.
While black students made up 16 percent of U.S. public school enrollment during the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which federal data are available, they represented 27 percent of those referred to law enforcement by schools and 31 percent of those who were subject to school-related arrests.
Some groups, like the Dignity in Schools Campaign, a coalition of student groups, have responded by saying police should not be in schools at all. Others have said concerns can be addressed through carefully crafted agreements between schools and law enforcement agencies.
Groups like Communities for Just Schools Fund have pushed in recent years for changes in school discipline policies at the local, state, and federal levels to end zero-tolerance policies and to reduce reliance on classroom removals like suspensions through use of strategies like restorative practices.
Those efforts came to a crescendo in 2014 when the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education released joint guidance that put schools on notice that discipline practices that disproportionately affect students in certain racial and ethnic groups may violate federal civil rights laws.
Districts are responsible for ensuring that school-based police officers do not violate the civil rights of students, the agencies said, even if those officers are employed by an external agency.
The National Association of School Resource Officers, which provides training for many school-based police, responded by saying it agreed that school resource officers should not be involved in student discipline.
As the Spring Valley videos continued to circulate online last week, groups who’ve pushed for discussions about school discipline in recent years sought to seize the moment as a chance to advance their cause.
“This is not about individual conduct,” Brown said. “It’s about a systemic deficiency in the way we treat children.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 04, 2015 edition of Education Week as Arrest Fuels Debate on School Police