Last week, social media was enraged by the conduct of one police officer in one school with one student. But despite the statement of the Sheriff who fired him, this wasn’t ultimately about policy. It’s about the ever shrinking line between disrupting class and resisting arrest.
On October 27, 2015, a student at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, posted a smart-phone video of Officer Ben Fields pulling a student from her seat, flipping her and her desk over onto the floor, and then dragging her to the front of the classroom where she was retrained and handcuffed. The video went viral and has reignited the debate around police in schools. In particular, the video makes viewers wonder, what did she do to deserve that?
Immediately after the video came out, commentators began a dialog that addressed everything from race – Officer Fields was white; the student was black – to school disruption, to the school to prison pipeline. Police have been assigned to schools across the country since the 1990s, so why are we just now having this conversation?
Perhaps this is just another facet of the issue of police brutality and racial relations that have dominated the media in recent months.
Perhaps it is because social media and cell-phones with video recording capacity give the public a way to second guess the actions of every officer and authority figure.
Or perhaps it is because until now, students who were arrested were assumed to have “earned it.” A common assumption was that by disrupting school, they got what they had coming to them. But let’s look at that assumption.
Schools have the authority to punish students who disrupt the classroom or learning experience of their fellow students. That could take the form of bullying or just refusing to do what a teacher says. Traditionally, this kind of student disruption was met with in-class punishments, detentions, suspensions, and expulsions – things that show up on a person’s school record, but won’t follow her into the adult world.
However, since the 1990s, as police have become progressively more involved in the day-to-day operations of public schools, the line between school disruption and resisting an officer has blurred. Now, when a student refuses to come in from the playground or sit down in the classroom, she could be facing criminal charges that will follow her for the rest of her life.
From reports, it seems that the young lady at Spring Valley High School had looked at her phone during class, which in that school was grounds for discipline. She then ignored requests by the teacher to get up and leave the classroom for discipline. Was this a disruption? Probably. But did it require police intervention and substantial physical injury? Certainly not. Should it result in a criminal record? That remains to be seen.
Officer Fields has already lost his job over the incident and the FBI is conducting an independent investigation at the Sheriff’s request. It seems everyone in the official chain of command believes this incident should not have been handled this way. But the question is should a police officer have been handling it at all? What is the effect of a uniformed officer responding to every school disruption? What does that level of police surveillance teach to American students about their value to society or the expectations we hold them to?
Lisa J. Schmidt is a juvenile defense attorney at Schmidt Law Services, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She helps troubled students at suspension and expulsion hearings, as well as in juvenile court. If you know a student facing trouble at school, contact Schmidt Law Services today for a free consultation.