Photo via Flickr user Ryan Stanton
On Monday, a video of a burly white cop violently arresting a female black student in a South Carolina high school emerged, prompting a deluge of outrage and disgust from around the country. Filmed from inside the classroom, which the girl had reportedly been asked to leave by her teacher and an administrator, the video shows Deputy Ben Fields—a school resource officer (SRO)—grabbing the child so hard that he upturns her desk. He then proceeds to throw her across the floor and subdue her. At one point, he threatens another student: "I'll put you in jail next."
The girl and another female student were charged with "disturbing school."
The video—which went viral yesterday—has rightly horrified the public. Yet like so many other high-profile videos of police brutality, what happened between Officer Fields and the student should be seen not as an isolated incident, but rather as evidence of a much larger problem of police violence towards communities of color.
In this case, that community is comprised of young kids at their desks in a school.
School resource officers may be part of a full-time school police force, or, like Fields, they may be municipal police officers contracted to work in academic settings. Like other officers wrapped up in high-profile incidents of police brutality, Fields has a history of excessive force allegations, the New York Times has reported, including an ongoing lawsuit set to go to trial in January in which he's accused of unfairly targeting black kids for allegations of gang activity. But Fields is not an isolated bad apple. Over the past five years, at least 28 students have been seriously injured by school resource officers, according to a Mother Jones report from this spring, and at least one student was killed.
The incidents detailed by Mother Jones included a child as young as 13 being put in a chokehold that lead to a brain injury; another teen being beaten 18 times with a baton; a third suffering a brain hemorrhage after being Tased and hitting his head; and a 14-year-old who was shot to death after punching another student and trying to run away. Earlier month, a federal judge ruled that officers in Birmingham, Alabama used excessive force when they pepper-sprayed a 15-year-old pregnant girl for crying in the hallway, and a 16-year-old boy during a search of his pockets. The students were sprayed with a chemical described by its manufacturer as "the most intense incapacitating agent available today." That school district is 96 percent African-American.
Like police brutality more broadly, harsh school discipline is most likely to affect students of color, particularly African Americans and Latinos. Nationally, half of all students arrested or referred to law enforcement at school are African-American or Hispanic. When it comes to out-of-school suspensions, black students are three times more likely to be expelled or suspended than their white peers—and that number is even higher for black students with disabilities. In South Carolina, the rate of suspensions for white students is 6.9 percent, while it's a staggering 19.2 percent for black students.
Now, one might assume these disparities stem from the fact that black students act out more than white students. But that's simply not the case. In a massive effort to reform harsh and discriminatory school discipline practices last year, the federal government cited research finding that disparate rates of discipline between races "are not explained by more frequent or more serious misbehavior by students of color."
In other words, students of color don't behave worse than white students—they're just punished more harshly.
As you might expect, the more subjective the offense, the more likely there is to be a racial disparity. The disturbance charge leveled at the girl Fields threw from her desk, for example, has a history of being applied disproportionately to South Carolina's black students. A report from the Civil Rights Project from back in 2000 found that, when it comes to clear-cut offense like weapons or drug possession, white students in South Carolina are charged at equal or significantly higher rates than their black classmates. But 69 percent of students charged with disturbing schools were black, while just 29 percent were white. Similarly vague offenses come with high disparities in school districts across the country; this summer, the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund complained that in McKinney, Texas—where another viral video captured a police officer throwing a teen girl to the ground—"disorderly conduct" citations were given to black students twice as frequently as white students.
In an era of increasingly normalized school shootings, the presence of police in elementary, middle and high schools is taken as much as a given as the presence of cops on the street. Similarly, police violence against youth of color is entrenched in a way that's unimaginable for white kids. The videos that have emerged over the course of the past year and a half—from Eric Garner in New York to Walter Scott in South Carolina—are increasingly difficult for white Americans to write off as "one-time instances," although some keep trying. The same excuses will be made for Ben Fields, but he, too, is illustrative of a much bigger problem.
What kind of impact will Fields's behavior have on those students, not just the girl he attacked, but the other young people in that classroom? How can we expect those kids to arrive each morning at school, feeling welcome and ready to learn?
Already, people on the internet are wondering what the girl did before the video started. In other words: What did that child do to deserve being attacked by a massive man in a uniform—one who coaches the school football team's defensive line and serves as the team's strength and conditioning coach? If you find yourself asking this question, it might be best to stay away from kids, since, you know, they sometimes don't do what they're told. The justification for police in schools is to keep students safe, not to put them in their place. It's a justification that's never fully held up under scrutiny, and in the case of this South Carolina outrage, it falls apart completely.
Molly Knefel is a writer and co-host of Radio Dispatch, a daily political podcast. She is also an after-school teacher for grades K-8. Follow her on Twitter.