Assault At Spring Valley High Brings Attention To Police In Schools, Are Black Students A Target?

The viral video of the violent arrest of a black female student in her classroom has really brought attention to the prevalence of police officers in schools across the nation. The officer who was caught on video body slamming the teenager with her classmates looking on has been fired. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott stated that the sighting of the video sickened him and now has many wondering if there was even a need for the police to become involved in an incident as mundane as a student refusing to leave class.

Sheriff Lott’s criticism was for more than just Officer Ben Fields’ violent actions. He is questioning the legislation that gives schools the option to have police officers dispensing what should be classroom discipline.

“Maybe that’s something that should have been handled by the administrator, without ever calling the deputy. I didn’t pass the law. It’s something that’s been put on us, and I’ll be one of the first ones to say that it’s been abused in the past.”

Ben Fields had an excessive force lawsuit brought against him in 2007 that was ultimately dismissed. He is also a named defendant in a 2013 lawsuit filed by a former Spring Valley student who was expelled after an investigation Fields led claimed the student, who is black, was involved in a huge gang fight. In his complaint, the student, Ashton Reese, alleges that Fields “recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity.” The trial is scheduled to take place in late January.

The Guardian reported that the official program was born out of the 1990s-era “tough on crime” movement. The spike in the country’s crime rate during that time led to federal funding and a growth in the presence of School Resource Officers. The percentage of schools participating in the program shot up from 1 percent in 1975 to 22 percent in 1997, and in 2007 over 40 percent of schools were using the program. That was the last year any data was collected regarding participation. School Resource Officers were supposed to give peace of mind to parents and a sense of safety to students, and over the past two and a half decades, the education system has only grown more entangled with law enforcement.

However, many believe that the gross abuse of this policing authority is a direct contributor of incidents like the one witnessed in the video. Those critical of the practice of keeping police in schools suggest that the police have become “fixtures” in the education system. Advocates argue that since these officers come fully armed with the power to arrest and interrogate students, the result is that many of these occurrences violate the constitutional protections that children on the streets would be afforded.

The last five years have seen the program coming under more scrutiny as studies reveal that the program disproportionately affects black students and criminalizes adolescent activities. The U.S. Department of Education, which is the nation’s highest education authority, investigated these concerns along with the Office of Civil Rights. The numbers reported in 2014 were the result of a study using 260,000 of the 49 million students in America. Black students were referred to law enforcement 27 percent of the time even though they only make up 16 percent of those enrolled. In contrast, white students were 51 percent of the enrolled but only 41 percent of those referred.

A young black male holds a stop mass incarceration placard at a protest against racial injustice

The Christian Science Monitor puts forth information that suggests that the increase of police presence in schools is actually doing more harm than good. Student offences, whether serious or frivolous, are increasingly being referred to the law enforcement officers, and the result is that the police were being used as replacements for teachers in the role of disciplinarian.

Emily Owens, an associate professor of criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, has researched SRO programs and states that Fields’ behavior illustrates a nationwide problem with the program. The officers are not being trained properly to handle incidents in schools.

“Officers get a lot of training on how to deal with low-frequency, high-intensity events, like how you respond to an active shooter. I know of a lot fewer big-city police agencies that train officers in more-common but equally important low-stress events.”

Data from the South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice actually reveals Richmond County has the biggest racial disparity of any county in the state as black students made up 82 percent of juvenile referrals to law enforcement while white students were only 14 percent of those referred.

The executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania, Shaun Harper, believes that these incidents of excessive force only serve to drive a wedge between the police and their communities and simply make blacks have a firmer belief that they need to fear the police. He also says that there exist so many other alternatives to disciplining a student other than involving School Resource Officers. Some methods that have proved successful include using methods that involve mediated discussions among victims, offenders, and teachers.

“I absolutely think the cons outweigh the pros. We know from the school discipline research that there are numerous alternatives to suspensions, expulsions, and having cops in schools.”

[Photo Courtesy of Scott Olson/ Getty Images]