Opinion

Filmed classroom arrest of South Carolina schoolgirl spotlights police brutality, prison pipeline

Could the cellphone do for the school discipline debate what car dashboard and body-worn cameras have done to ignite the movement to curb police brutality?

The young South Carolina woman whose violent arrest was captured by phone-wielding classmates has not yet been identified publicly. But the images of Richland County Deputy Ben Fields flipping her, still in her chair, onto the floor and dragging her across the classroom have galvanized critics of the school-to-prison pipeline. The student is black. Fields, who was fired Wednesday, is white.

Advocates say the videos are a stark illustration of the effect the presence of a police officer — typically referred to as a school resource officer, or SRO — can have on how a school responds to disruptive student behavior.

Related: Column This young man beat his own police record to become a true hero of ed reform

There’s research showing that, even controlling for socioeconomic status, students at schools where there is an SRO are at least five times more likely than their peers to be arrested and sent into the juvenile justice system by the officers and for minor infractions. There, disproportionate consequences accrue quickly.

“In some places, school resource officers have become the de facto disciplinarians in school settings,” said Nekima Levy-Pounds, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas and the president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP. “We see incidents where students are given citations to appear in court for talking back.”

If the students’ accounts of Monday’s incident are borne out, the viral videos are a textbook illustration of the problem. According to the teens who shot the videos that surfaced Monday, the student in question refused requests from first a teacher and then an administrator to give up her phone, protesting that she had done nothing wrong.

Related: School districts respond to growing fury over police shootings, black male achievement gap

After the officer entered the picture things escalated at lightning pace. A young woman who tried to help her classmate was also arrested. The young woman thrown to the ground was revealed Wednesday to be an orphan living in foster care. According to her attorney, she sustained injuries to her face, neck and arm.

As federal pressure increases to bring the rate at which black and brown students are disciplined into line with their white peers, some school districts and advocacy organizations are calling for better monitoring or the wholesale elimination of school resource officers, as the in-school law enforcement officers are typically called.

In the Columbia school system where the arrest was captured on video, 59 percent of students are black and 26 percent white. Yet U.S. Department of Justice figures show more than three-fourths of students suspended in the 2011-2012 school year were African American.

There are plenty of schools throughout the country where well-trained SROs have become a constructive part of the educational community. But surveys show that overall, the officers spend 20 hours a week engaged in law enforcement activity inside of schools.

Related: Who is the biggest victim of America’s prison boom?

Research from a number of sources has found the likelihood of student misbehavior resulting in an arrest spikes when police are stationed in the school. An encounter in the educational setting is often the first time a young person has contact with the juvenile justice system.

Reports of violence and crime in schools are lower than they have been in 25 years. Yet the number of students arrested or referred to the juvenile justice system by school resource officers has increased in recent years, according to a research review by the nonpartisan Justice Policy Institute.

Related: Pipeline to Prison: Special education too often leads to jail for thousands of American children

A 2009 study in the Journal of Criminal Justice found that even controlling for poverty, students were five times more likely to be arrested for disorderly conduct if their school was assigned a police officer.

In Clayton County, Georgia, referrals increased from about 89 per year in the late 1990s to 1,400 in 2004, according to the Justice Policy Institute survey. And researchers in Chicago, Florida and Denver have found a correlation between an officer’s presence in a school and the number of students referred to law enforcement or the courts.

According to the restorative justice group Project NIA, of the 39,000 arrests of juveniles in Chicago in 2013 and 2014, 7,703 took place on school grounds. Almost four of five arrests were for minor, nonviolent misdemeanors; more than half involved students younger than 16. Examining Chicago Police Department records, Project NIA found black Chicago students are 27 times more likely to be arrested on school grounds than their white classmates, with most sent into the juvenile justice system for infractions that, in the absence of a readily available police officer, would be dealt with as behavior issues.

Related: Pipeline to Prison: Special education too often leads to jail for thousands of American children

Once students have had contact with the courts, their chances of graduating from high school plummet. Up to three-fourths of students who re-enroll in high school after confinement drop out. Some 15 percent graduate within four years. “Collateral” consequences that can follow the student for life. A juvenile arrest can make it hard for someone to get student aid and housing, and to pass job screening tests later in life, Levy-Pounds noted. A history with the juvenile justice system can also mean harsher sentences if a person reoffends as an adult.

There are 82,000 such officers assigned to 43 percent of American schools, many of them paid for not by schools but by the districts’ home communities. Their ranks first swelled in the 1970s and 1980s as “tough on crime” policies began trickling down to schools.

More officers were assigned as schools implemented “zero-tolerance” discipline policies in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the wake of the Columbine school shootings and other high-profile incidents.

Related: Mississippi leads south in black student suspensions

Laws criminalizing behavior that would previously have been dealt with by a trip to the dean’s office followed. Today 23 states have made it a misdemeanor to interfere in an educational setting. In some places SROs have little latitude in terms of their response when they are called into a classroom.

A separate body of research suggests that in terms of creating a peaceful learning environment, a strong school culture is the most effective tool. Schools where students are engaged and adults are skilled in positive, preventive discipline see big drops in the frequency with which kids are sent out of the classroom because of misbehavior.

“It’s a myth that there is so much violence in schools that these resource officers are necessary,” said Levy-Pounds. “Where students used to be expelled or suspended now they are charged with assault and battery.”

Beth Hawkins is a former MinnPost education reporter. She is now a writer-in-residence at Education Post.

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Beth Hawkins

Beth Hawkins is a former MinnPost education reporter. She is now a writer-in-residence at Education Post. See Archive