My stomach turned when he violently slammed her desk backward. I could feel my heart rate slow nearly to a stop as he dragged her five feet across the grimy linoleum of the classroom floor. She was young, female, and black. He was older, male, and white. At issue was teenage insouciance. She wouldn’t give up her damn cell phone.
I avoided watching that video for a week. I didn’t want to read the hashtags on Twitter. I didn’t want that weary, impotent rage to blanket my mind once again. I simply wished it wasn’t real.
Why is it that mild rebellion becomes a kindling for violence when it features a black cast? What element comes into play that transforms routine encounters between law enforcement and commoners into theaters for racial animus? What made this particular 16-year-old such a looming threat?
These are the facts: A black female student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina was glued to her cellphone during class time. After refusing to heed the demands of both her teacher and an administrator to leave the class, a School Resource Officer was called in. The officer, Ben Fields, is seen on cellphone video immediately escalating the situation.
After the student refuses to comply with Officer Fields’ demand to follow him out of the classroom, the video clearly captures him grabbing her by the neck, slamming her backwards while she is still seated at her desk, and finally dragging her to the front of the room. Her fellow classmates are shown taking pains to stare at their desks in an effort to avoid witnessing the brutal scene.
Following the incident, the student was released to her parents. Although some students argued in defense of Fields, his brutal tactics led to his termination. Officer Fields has faced lawsuits for excessive force and violation of civil rights. One suit was largely dismissed in 2007. A second suit, filed by a former student at Spring Valley High, will be heard in January 2016.
As I’ve written before, the presence of video thrusts the public into the heart of the assault. The existence of the video shot by the student’s classmate obviates the public’s reflexive need to pretend the officer couldn’t have possibly been that brutal. The dispassionate oculus of a zoom lens is a necessary tool in the fight to expose the heady reality of race and policing in American classrooms.
In widening the scope of the analysis, it becomes easier to understand how punitive educational policies strangle the potential of black students to fully engage in and benefit from school. The ability to test the boundaries of acceptable behavior has become a privilege reserved for white kids merely deemed to be going through a “phase”.
At the heart of this brutal incident is the introduction of school policies that effectively criminalize students for bad behavior. Resultantly, unacceptable behavior is met with criminal liability instead of course correction and empathetic guidance. The pivot toward early criminalization of students is exemplified in South Carolina by the Disturbing Schools Law. This 1962 statute makes it unlawful “for any person willfully or unnecessarily to interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college…” Conviction leads to a misdemeanor charge and a fine.
This disturbingly vague law opens innumerable pathways to the criminalization of a significant portion of the 59% of black students served by the school district encompassing Spring Valley High. Indeed, recent studies conducted by the Department of Education bear this out. The data is clear. Black students are 3 times more likely than their white peers to be subject to disciplinary action that separates them from a learning environment. Add to that the introduction of police officers in schools, and the inevitable result is a punitive atmosphere in which disadvantaged students face early forays into the penal system for petty rebellions.
Officer Fields has been fired. Both the F.B.I. and the Justice Department are investigating the assault. Unfortunately, the individual fate of Officer Fields will have a net zero impact on the multitudes of black children navigating an educational system that is not built for their success.
She was young, female, and black. Why did she have to be that?