The video of a school resource officer violently slamming an African-American teenage girl to the floor and then dragging her across the classroom when she refused to get out of her seat spread across social media on Monday, and was soon picked up by the national media. Deputy Ben Fields, the Richland County officer assigned to police the Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, has since been fired and is now the focus of an FBI civil rights inquiry. Anyone who has watched the video can see that there is no justification for such brute force, and that this officer had no business working with children — or with the public in general.
The Richland County Sheriff fired Officer Fields for using excessive force in violation of department policies. Yet while many are celebrating his termination, the incident exposes a deeper problem in South Carolina, and in schools across the nation. South Carolina state law allows children to be arrested merely on the charge of “disturbing schools,” a 1976 law designed to prevent “outside agitation” by anti-war organizers on college campuses during the Vietnam war. The law has since been used to allow resource officers in middle schools and high schools to arrest thousands of mostly African-American students who “disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school” or who “act in an obnoxious manner.”
The student’s offense in this incident was using her cellphone and then refusing to get up when asked by a teacher. A second student who questioned the officer’s behavior was also arrested for disturbing schools. In South Carolina, these are both prosecutable offenses and in many cases result in a juvenile delinquency adjudication for youth who are simply behaving like teenagers. If the officer had not used excessive force, the arrest would have been legally justified.
Most states do not have laws on the books that give police such a wide range of latitude to arrest a student. But across the nation, school disciplinary matters in low-income communities of color have increasingly been assigned to law enforcement via memoranda of understanding (MOU) between the school district and the local police department. School resource officers, often paid for by federal subsidies, patrol urban high schools and are routinely involved in handling matters once referred to the principal’s office. In New York City, for example, there aremore than 5,000 school safety agents policing schools — and only about 3,000 guidance counselors. It is no surprise that arrests of students in school has increased, even as violent crime in schools has decreased.
Thankfully there is a movement afoot to reverse these disturbing trends. School districts like Oakland, California, have embraced a restorative approach to school discipline that stresses both support and accountability, and has resulted in significant decreases in violence, suspensions and arrests on campuses.
New York City is renegotiating the agreement between the city’s department of education and police department, with the intent of limiting the number of behaviors for which a student can be arrested. Many educators, police chiefs and community members are rethinking a zero-tolerance approach to school discipline that relies on armed officers as the first responders to student misconduct.
Officer Ben Fields has been fired. Yet his termination cannot make us forget the uncomfortable truth that police officers have been given the legal authority, either by state law or local agreement to arrest children for youthful misbehavior. Until laws like South Carolina’s “disturbing schools” statute are repealed, MOUs are renegotiated, and fiscal incentives to police schools are reversed, incidences like this one will continue to happen.
Rev. Rubén Austria is the founder and executive director of Community Connections for Youth, a Bronx-based nonprofit whose mission is to empower grassroots faith and neighborhood organizations to develop effective community-driven alternatives to incarceration for youth.