Police Brutality Extends to the Classroom

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Illustration by Tom Clary

Violence doesn’t belong in the classroom. But in this country, it’s becoming shockingly more common.

The increase of incidents of violence in public schools have pushed educators to take more steps to ensure students’ safety on campus. Many academic institutions, for instance, have hired a school resource officer to protect students on campus. But what happens when the perpetrator of violence against a student is the very person whose job it is to protect them?

That’s exactly what occurred at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina.

On Oct. 26, a teacher called in a school resource officer to remove a student for allegedly being disruptive. The 16-year-old student, a young black woman, apparently refused to relinquish her phone or leave the classroom. After she didn’t comply with his orders, the officer — a white man — put his arm around the student’s neck, yanking her backward and flipping her desk upside down while she was still in it.

He then tossed her to the front of the classroom, where he proceeded to handcuff her. The confrontation was recorded by another student and shared on social media, almost immediately sparking national outrage.

The officer in question, senior deputy Ben Fields, was fired two days after the video circulated. Since then, the FBI has launched a civil rights investigation into the incident. The implications of this assault, however, extend far beyond this single event.

The young woman in this situation was not armed, like most students. She was not posing a threat to either the officer or to her classmates. Though she may have defied her teacher and the officer, verbal disobedience doesn’t sanction the use of physical force — let alone to such an aggressive caliber. When people insist that the girl should have put her phone away to avoid the confrontation, they essentially justify police brutality in the classroom.

Instances of young black women facing penalties far harsher than the degree of the misconduct are common in public education. According to a study conducted by Columbia law professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and her associates, black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls misbehaving in the same way.

In one case where two 12-year-old girls were suspended for graffiting a wall at school, the black student faced a school disciplinary hearing and a trespassing misdemeanor accusation. The other student, who was white, merely paid restitution and the case was dismissed.

While many condemn Fields’ use of disciplinary violence, some still blame the student for instigating the entire situation. In a news conference the day following the incident, Leon Lott, the county’s sheriff, said the student “was responsible for initiating [the officer’s] action.” Even though he also stated that “what [the student] did doesn’t justify what our deputy did,” the message is clear — the officer isn’t fully responsible for the assault.

Recognizing the role of race in this incident is critical, as people are still quick to deny that the officer’s use of force was at least somewhat racially motivated. Last Friday, pictures of Spring Valley students were shared on Twitter, showing them wearing t-shirts saying “#BringBackFields” and walking out of their classrooms at 10 a.m. in protest. Similarly, articles quoted students who emphasized that Fields was well-liked by the school body and that he was known to be looking out for their best interest. Lott also commented that Fields had a black girlfriend, using that as a counterexample to allegations of Fields’ prejudice. While these details may be true, they fall short of substantiating that Fields is not racist and thus shouldn’t be so harshly blamed for “doing his job.”

Furthermore, the people blaming the student for not following an authority figure’s orders are further normalizing the idea that black girls are inherently troublemakers. If teachers buy into the stereotypes that students of color are defiant and looking to challenge authority, they are more likely to give up on them and devote less time to ensuring their academic success.

This lack of support leads to an increased chance of black girls performing poorly in school from an early age, which limits their placement in advanced classes in high school, and later acceptance to a four-year university. Early limitations on their access to resources leaves black women faced with social immobility disproportionate to other demographics.

There is no denying the officer’s actions were clearly assault, but we also need to talk about how black girls are unfairly accused of inflicting their own misfortune.

The conversation regarding this incident needs to not only address the fact that the officer assaulted a minor, but that black girls in particular are subject to dramatically unequal levels of discipline.

Young black women and girls shouldn’t have to defend their right to not be physically assaulted in an institution of learning. Authority figures’ attitudes toward black women in schools are alarming and inappropriate, and serve to further normalize violence against these students.