Black parents in Spring Valley High School are doing something about that perverse school-to-prison pipeline by pressing to have charges dropped against two girls connected to the videotaped classroom assault by now-fired officer Ben Fields.
The horrifying video of a White male police officer pulling a girl identified as “Shakara” from her classroom desk, dragging her across the floor and injuring her arm, back and neck, inspired a public outcry. The reaction included Twitter hashtags, a multitude of op-eds and some introspection on how our education and criminal justice systems intersect to create school environments unsafe for Black children.
What’s important is what happens now. But we need to go beyond penalizing mere individuals and attack structures that scaffold violent moments like these that continue to haunt Black youth. Following are five reforms we can implement now to make school safe for learning again:
Revisit the presence of armed police in schools.
Armed and uniformed police officers regularly patrol U.S. grade school campuses. In 2007, more than 40 percent of local law enforcement agencies reported using “school resource officers.” Richland County, where Spring Valley High School is located, has 87 such officers. Their mere presence leads to a five-fold increase in student arrests, disproportionately targeting students of color. A study by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights found that although Black students represent 16 percent of enrollment in U.S. public schools, they comprised 31 percent of the students subjected to a school-related arrest. Black girls are particularly vulnerable as they comprise 43 percent of girls arrested at school, while representing less than 17 percent of female students.
Amend or repeal laws that permit corporal punishment
Officer Ben Fields began working at Spring Valley High School in 2008, and although he created many purported warm relationships with male students, he came to be known as “Officer Slam,” as he regularly threw students to the floor when disciplining them. Alarmingly, this aggressive practice is permitted under South Carolina Law, which permits “the governing body of each school district [to] provide corporal punishment for any pupil that it deems just and proper.”
The problem with this law is it authorizes corporal punishment in schools and is hopelessly vague. Haven’t we moved beyond these types of archaic and arguably primitive disciplinary mechanisms? Who does “governing body” even refer to? Was Fields a governing body? The outcome likely would have been vastly different and more effective for all involved if police were actually held to their promise of being an “active listener and a positive role model,” as the law states.
Mandatory crisis prevention training for all teachers, not just those working with special needs and emotionally disturbed students.
The Algebra-I mathematics teacher, Robert Long, a middle-aged White male, was reported as saying he felt the officer acted appropriately. He also reportedly stated if the student just put her phone away and complied with his demands the whole situation could have been avoided. Given details regarding Shakara’s recent traumatic experiences – she was reportedly in foster care at the time — we must ask how could the situation have been avoided via the teacher or even an administrator, regardless of the student’s actions?
The South Carolina Department of Education has been working with the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) for 15 years, offering de-escalation training to a number of teachers within the state’s schools. Mike Paget, a consultant with the South Carolina Board of Education, has said, “when situations arise that present a risk to students and staff, no one wants to have to place a hand on a student to restrain them. Ideally you want to be able to handle a situation in a way that will make it safer rather than worse.” It is not known whether the algebra teacher had this training, but the fact that we can’t be certain is exactly the issue.
De-escalation training offered to the South Carolina schools focuses mostly on emotionally disturbed students or students with special needs. As this incident occurred in a regular class environment, Shakara’s emotional issues regarding her new foster care situation may not have been known. For this reason, de-escalation training must be made available and required for teachers to deal with issues not classically categorized by the State Board of Education to be high-risk or special needs. Consider what might have been avoided had Roberts talked to Shakara about her feelings, her life, or even her “disrespectful” actions.
Mandatory de-escalation training for police officers working in schools.
According to a 2015 report by the Police Executive Research Forum, police officers spent 5 percent of in-service training on de-escalation while they spent 18 percent of in-service hours on firearms. This clearly illustrates the dire need to include de-escalation as a more central component of law enforcement training, especially for officers who work in schools.
Improving de-escalation techniques by police officers, school resource officers, and other law enforcement officers can reduce rates of violence, build trust and increase safety within communities. De-escalation techniques consist of a variety of psychosocial techniques aimed at reducing violent and/or disruptive behavior and include displaying an open attitude, being non-judgmental and self-aware, and manifesting supportive characteristics without appearing arrogant. One must appear calm even if internally anxious because this helps manage feelings of anger and aggression in the other person. The officer must use a gentle and soft tone when communicating.
Stop criminalizing adolescent behavior.
The vast majority of school arrests are not for violent or felony offenses: They represent the uniquely American phenomenon of criminalizing adolescent misbehavior. In Spring Valley, Shakara and her classmate who filmed the incident were arrested for “disturbing schools,” a criminal offense that carries a penalty of a fine up to $1,000 or up to 90 days’ jail time. A person is said to be disturbing a school if she “disturb[s] in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school.”
Under this definition, any class clown could be arrested and jailed.
Having these laws in effect and police in schools not only creates a draconian system of punishment, inflicted disproportionately on children of color, but also introduces discriminatory, assaultive policing tactics into schools. Officer Fields had previously been sued for using excessive force and discriminatory policing practices and his presence and behavior in Shakara’s classroom just demonstrates how police presence in schools brings with it two things we too frequently see in the streets — racial bias and excessive force.
Currently, student misbehavior is criminalized and not understood to be linked to internal sources, such as depression, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. Studies of girls involved in the juvenile justice system have consistently shown a higher prevalence of trauma when compared to their peers who are not in the juvenile justice system as well as compared to boys within the juvenile justice system. Recognizing psychological sources for misbehavior (or silent noncompliance) would reduce the criminalizing of these individuals and allow for the exploration of other more peaceful avenues for educators and school administrators to take.[
The most recent snapshot provided by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed an alarming 4,200 juveniles held in local jails pending trial. Whenever possible, juveniles charged with crimes should be supervised in the community pending trial, where they can receive mental health services, attend school, and keep ties with family and friends. Both Shakara and Niya Kenny, who filmed the incident, face misdemeanor charges of “disturbing schools.”
On the day of the assault, Niya was handcuffed, arrested and spent 8 1/2 hours in a detention center, as she waited for her mother to post $1,000 bond. Her classmate was released when her mother posted the bond money; if she did not have the resources to post the bond, she would likely still be jail waiting for her December court date.
Amanda Woog, J.D., is a post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin. Naomi Reed is a social science post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas where she is also a Public Voices Fellow. Shetal Vorha-Gupta is the associate director for the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis and lecturer for African and African Diaspora Studies at University of Texas at Austin.