In a recent TED talk, Ariel Investments president Mellody Hobson told of her return home from a birthday party when she was seven where she was the only black child. Her mother asked: “How did they treat you?”
It’s a question parents of color ask our children because we fear for their safety and we understand that America is not a post-racial society. In schools, children of color can also be treated more harshly and more severely than other students for the same offenses.
Monday, Deputy Ben Fields, who is employed as a school resource officer at Spring Valley High in Richland County, S.C., was placed on leave after a video caught him in a violent confrontation with a female student who reportedly refused his order to leave the class for being disruptive. On the video, he apparently grabs her, puts his arm around her throat and upper body, flips her over while she was still seated, then drags her across the room. No one was hurt in the incident, according to Associated Press reports. Still, it is morally unacceptable to handle students in such a violent manner and police should help de-escalate disputes, not resort to violence.
When another student rightly questioned Deputy Fields over his actions, the student was threatened with arrest. In the end, two students were indeed arrested — the young woman who was assaulted and an unidentified male student.
Given Deputy Fields’ prior record, which includes being a defendant in a lawsuit for violating the civil rights of another Spring Valley student, it’s inconceivable he was permitted to remain on campus. The only way to stop this behavior is to hold police and school officials accountable.
In 2014, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released guidance on racism and discipline and asserted, among other things, that school officials are responsible for how discipline is administered on their campuses. It’s not enough to issue statements expressing outrage and concern. The school district knew Fields’ past and they too should be held accountable.
While the notion of police in schools may conjure up thoughts of safety, armed guards, including school resource officers and police officers, can wrongly become involved in school disciplinary matters.
Of course this is not an isolated incident; not for Richland County or the nation.
Earlier this year, 17-year-old Brittany Overstreet was body-slammed and knocked unconscious by a school resource officer in her Tampa, Fla. school. Brittany was then charged with the all-encompassing and often misleading “resisting arrest,” charges that were later dropped. Diamond Neal was assaulted by an officer in her Baltimore school and required 10 stitches after the attack. The officer in that case was later charged with stealing from students. In McKinney, Texas, Officer Eric Casebolt, grabbed 15-year-old Dejerria Becton by her hair, threw her on the ground and then straddled her small body – all while she was wearing a bikini. These are examples of the girls whose names we know. There are countless others who are victimized by police whose names we cannot recite because we have yet to hear their stories.
In recent months, the over-policing and criminalization of girls is gaining more awareness through a number of news and issue reports from the African American Policy Forum and other outlets. They validate the lived experiences of Black girls who are being abused in and out of schools. In schools, as in the rest of the community, too many Black women and girls are labeled loud, unruly, angry and disruptive. These unfair stereotypes affect how our children are treated in schools, and beyond.
When Mellody Hobson’s mom saw that she couldn’t answer her question, she warned her daugther: “They will not always treat you well.”
All students deserve the benefit of adult concern over their well-being and safety. This is something seemingly withheld from Black girls. This requires collective admonishment and reproach. We should all be asking, “How did they treat you?” And when we find our children are mistreated there are resources to help.
Parents can visit www.safequalityschools.org for more information or contact groups such as Advancement Project, the NAACP LDF, African American Policy Forum and others who are working to put an end to the victimization and over-criminalization of youth in schools.
Jennifer Farmer is Managing Director for Communications for the national racial justice organization, Advancement Project. You can follow her Twitter @Farmer8J.