Yesterday, the world saw shocking footage of a young African-American girl being grabbed across the neck, aggressively yanked to the ground under a flipped desk, and dragged across the room by a white male police officer.
The response was swift. This morning, Deputy Sheriff Officer Ben Fields was fired.
In a press conference today, Richmond County Sheriff Leon Lott stated that the girl had not been a danger or posed a threat to anyone and that Fields clearly did not use proper protocol. The Justice Department and the FBI will also be looking into the case to see if further action is needed as some are calling for Fields to now be prosecuted for assault and his use of excessive force.
But something Lott said during the press conference exposed a troubling problem that has nothing to do with police brutality.
Lott admitted that maybe this case provides a good opportunity to evaluate (emphasis added) "the role of the [Student Resource Officer] and what schools are using us for. Should [Officer Fields] have ever been called? Maybe that's something that the administrator should have handled without ever calling the officer."
So why was the cop called in the first place? What was the student doing that was so "disruptive"?
She had her cell phone out in class. According to a classmate, it was only "for a quick second," so when the teacher told her to leave because of it, she refused, stating that she hadn't done anything wrong. For that, she was ultimately grabbed around her neck and dragged across the floor by a cop.
The police action taken in response to what sounds like no more than a stubborn student shines a spotlight on the real issue: An alarming culture of control and punishment within our education system.
Under the guise of "discipline," our schools have become a place where students are made to follow an excessive number of rules and then harshly punished for breaking them.
Princeton University's Hughes-Rogers Professor of African American Studies and faculty associate of law and public affairs Dr. Imani Perry addressed the issue head-on in the following Facebook post yesterday. If you want to read it in its entirety, here it is. But I'll break down the key stuff below.
Dr. Perry begins by saying that "Punishment has become the dominant logic in so many arenas in this society, especially [in] schools for poor and working class Black and Latino students."
The military-like school rules that demand that children be still, sit for long periods of time in uncomfortable positions, not use the bathroom without permission or stretch when they need to, stand in single file line, be silent, sit on the floor to "earn their desks," and other similar restrictions can make school feel less like a place of growth and learning and more like boot camp.
Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates described his memories of attending an urban public school in this way in his autobiography "Between the World and Me":
When children break these rules, the punishment is often harsh and excessive.
In her Facebook post, Perry calls the logic behind these harsh punishments both "developmentally inappropriate and pedagogically unsound." In other words, child specialists and education experts alike know that the type of discipline is neither healthy nor productive.
And to make matters worse, this harsh punishment is disproportionately doled out to students of color.
Just last year a report on school discipline in the nation's public schools was released by U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights and the results were disheartening, to say the least. Across all age groups, black students are three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled.
It starts early, too. According to the report, black children only make up 18% of preschoolers but make up nearly half of all out-of-school suspensions. Because black 4-year-olds are so uniquely out of control?
Those punishments often quickly escalate to police engagement.
With the increased presence of student resource officers in schools, student actions are much more likely to be labeled criminal. According to Think Progress:
Thousands of officers across the country — many of whom are armed — are more involved in the disciplinary process than ever and exacerbate the school-to-prison pipeline. Kids are more likely to be suspended and expelled for minor offenses. More children are arrested for nonviolent, school-related offenses, such as violating a dress code or walking in the hall without a pass.
The DOE report also found that while black students make up about 16% of enrolled students, they make up more than a quarter of all students who are referred to the police.
It is what experts call the school-to-prison pipeline — and it's what we saw play out right in front of our eyes in the Spring Valley High School clip.
This is the culture that not only allowed an officer to physically assault a young girl for being "disrespectful" but one in which the teacher stood idly by and watched it happen.
My heart aches not just for her but for the countless children who are treated every day with far less humanity, love, and compassion than they deserve — for the children who are treated more like military recruits than precious minds and more like caged animals than daughters and sons.
Are some rules necessary and helpful? Sure. And is discipline also sometimes necessary to create an environment that is conducive to learning for all students? Absolutely.
But theoretically, we send our children to school to learn not just reading and writing but also how to be responsible, creative, thinking, self-governing adults in the real world. Does being kicked out of class and ultimately arrested for looking at a cellphone really accomplish that goal?
The result of this punitive culture and police engagement in classroom discipline was on display, front and center in the #AssaultatSpringValley video. And while Fields has already been fired for his excessive use of force, it's up to us to demand better for all students, especially our most vulnerable, each and everyday.