This week the most recent reason the #BlackLivesMatter movement is necessary unfolded in a terrifying and unconscionable fashion. In South Carolina the Student Resource Officer Ben Fields was captured on video assaulting a teenage girl including throwing her across the room.
For refusing to leave the classroom.
Let that sink in for awhile. A student refused to leave the classroom upon a teacher’s demand, which caused an administrator to repeat the command with the same non reaction. This prompted Officer Fields to be summoned which escalated the confrontation from disobedience to assault. One student was thrown across the room and another arrested for standing up for the poor girl. Many will argue that this is simply a bad apple. And while there can be no question that Officer Fields was a bad apple, he is a part of an infected tree, wherein we cannot determine the good from bad until it is too late.
It has been reported that in a third video the girl punches the officer this can hardly be surprising. A student, unarmed and not showing any tendency toward violence is not being assaulted and grabbed by an officer. Who among us wouldn’t struggle against that force?
This is an act unimaginable against a white student. The continuation of violence against black bodies is a social epidemic in which we are all culpable. For if we are not actively fighting against such violence, we are complicit in its occurrence.
This to me is most prevalent in the school officials that watched silently as this attack unfolded. Both the teacher and the school administrator never once sought to stop the violence perpetuated against this victim. In fact the only person who came to the student’s defense— another student— was arrested for her efforts.
The discipline structure of that school has clearly eroded if the Student Resource Officer is needed to go and remove a student from a class room. There are ways to punish student disobedience without resorting to police force. Students can be punished for disobedience in the form of referrals, suspensions and other means that are totally inside the school’s purview and rely on educational incentives for good behavior instead of allowing students to live in fear of their bodily safety from the police officer assigned to their school.
The point of SRO’s is to promote safety. The SRO program began as a way to build relationships between young people and police. Many SROs are encouraged to coach and to become friendly with students. Their intended involvement has to do with the need to build relationships as well as to promote safety especially in the event of a violent and potentially deadly situation. The situation in South Carolina was in no way life threatening. Which begs the question: why are the officers assigned to our school to promote our safety a part of the discipline structure? SRO’s should be present if, and only if, the student in question is threatening to or causing bodily injury and death to other students. And in many of these situation, notable fist fights, the SRO is not needed as a direct participant. If these conditions re not met, then the SRO should not intervene. If these officers are here to promote our safety, then they should make all students feel safe. It is abundantly clear Officer Fields failed in this effort.
Further complicating this situation is the fact South Carolina has a law on the books regarding disturbing school which is so woefully vague that a logical argument cane made that nearly everyone in the school has broken the law at some point or another. When laws this vague are on the books, they become enforced unequally and this discretion usually results in disproportionate impact on students of color. I would refer you all to last night’s All In With Chris Hayes for a more enlightened and nuanced discussion of this topic.
It is undoubtedly for the best that Officer Fields was fired. He acted in a way that escalated a rather low level situation into a national news event. A student was assaulted and another was arrested for standing up to a man that acted irresponsibly and recklessly. But the burden is now on us to ensure that we are actively engaged in changing the way police interact with black people as well as to reclaim a discipline structure that doesn’t perpetuate violence against students for minor infractions.
The New York Times’ article below was used for background information and reference.