Issues with race, system highlighted in S.C.

Staff Editorial

Spring Valley’s Rosa Parks

Last week, at Spring Valley high school in Columbia, S.C., an assistant football coach and school resource officer flipped a student’s desk, gripped her arm and leg and threw her to the front of the classroom after she refused to stand up.

The student, whose name is protected due to her status as a minor, refused to give her math teacher her cell phone, and was consequently arrested on the charge of “disrupting schools.”

Former deputy Ben Fields, the officer who arrested the student on video, has been fired from his position pending investigation of whether his actions violated the student’s civil rights.

The State newspaper in South Carolina reported U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan mentioned the civil-rights investigation Friday in Tennessee.

“(T)his week, we’ve been forced to again confront how far we still have left to go in the struggle for true equality,” Duncan said. “If we want to maintain the trust of parents and communities in our schools, we must start by treating our children with respect and human dignity.”

Fields’ actions weren’t justified, and at first glance at the footage, seem completely astounding. How could someone who has held his position for seven years react so brutally?

Fields claims the student attempted to strike him, but the video footage recorded by the girl’s classmates from different angles during her arrest fails to support his claim.

One of the classmates who captured the incident on video was Niya Kenny, who was also arrested after shouting at the deputy and school employees to stop, The State reported last week. Kenny was also charged with disturbing schools.

The fact is that people of color, women especially, are disproportionately targeted by white police officers. The fact is that before race or gender variables even come into the equation though, this girl should have never been targeted for her “crime” in the first place.

“Initially, when they said an SRO was coming, we have two — so I didn’t know which one was coming,” Kenny said to The State. “It could have been the other one. When I saw deputy Fields, that’s when I started … that’s when I told them to get the cameras out, because we know his reputation — well, I know his reputation.”

The actions of the Spring Valley student who was initially arrested, while clearly rebellious, didn’t warrant her violent arrest. Her actions didn’t warrant an arrest at all, let alone the use of force when she didn’t stand up from her non-threatening position at her seat.

The State reported that though Kenny said she didn’t personally know the girl Fields arrested, Kenny knew what was happening was not okay. “It should have been an adult, that’s what I think,” she said. “One of the adults should have said, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa — that’s not how you do this.’ But instead, it had to be a student in the classroom to stand up and say, ‘This is not right.’”

The girl Fields initially arrested didn’t have a weapon and wasn’t acting in any manner that indicated she did. Perhaps, the student was stunned she was being arrested for using her cell phone in class, or apprehensive to cater to an authority figure who has brutalized people of color in her state.

Who guards the guards?

Fields is a member of the Richland County Sheriff’s Office in Columbia, South Carolina and has faced two lawsuits in the last decade. In 2007, he was accused of excessive force and battery, but the jury acquitted him, and in 2008 he was appointed as Spring Valley High School’s resource officer.

While there’s no doubt that the last year has seen a resurgence in discourse pertaining to race and authoritative displays of excessive force, there’s another variable here: the fundamental flaws in the education system toxically mixed with the reliance on “rent-a-cops” in public schools.

In the videos recorded during the encounter last week, the teacher is standing inactive at the front of the classroom. Fields’ actions sent a clear message to the other students of the class who remained frozen in fear as he made his arrest: “I can do the same to you. I can do whatever I want.”

To fill the vacuum created by removing both teachers and students from having a legitimate stake in education, schools have increasingly relied on School Resource Officers to discipline students, but the popular use of SROs as the primary form of school security has faced critical review recently.

One article by U.S. News & World Report explains how SROs may contribute to the school-to-prison pipeline by needlessly instituting the justice system at an early age. The American Civil Liberties Union also has warned that the use of SROs puts the responsibility of disciplining children into the hands of the school’s presiding officer.

“Disturbing schools” is the third most frequent referral offense that lands children in the South Carolina’s juvenile justice system, according to state Department of Juvenile Justice statistics from 2013-14.

Nearly 1,200 disturbing schools cases were generated statewide during that period, including 98 cases from Richland County. In the videos from Spring Valley, the teacher and other students in the class watch as a uniformed, armed and agitated officer arrests a student for disrupting the teacher’s lecture because she wouldn’t put away her cell phone.

The autonomous authority of these witnesses and bystanders has been reduced to nothing — reflective of the hierarchy and disregard for teacher-student or student-student dynamics.

What has allowed for officers, not teachers or actual school administration, to enforce the rules in public schools without any investigative branch to enforce accountability?

“We believe that Mr. Fields’ actions were justified and lawful throughout the circumstances of which he was confronted during this incident,” a portion of the statement released to media from Fields’ attorney reads. “To that extent, we believe that Mr. Fields’ actions were carried out professionally and that he was performing his job duties within the legal threshold.”

It is still about race

Severe racial inequality pervades the American education system across the board. Local property taxes largely comprise public school funding among different districts in the same state. In other words, low income neighborhoods with crowded, smaller homes can’t contribute to obtaining better resources for their neighborhood schools.

Despite attempts by the Bush Administration’s “No Child Left Behind” act in 2001, the Obama administration granting billions to public education, and countless measures by state and local legislations, the U.S. Department of Education reports black students still consistently test lower than white students in math and reading tests in 2015.

In South Carolina — where there’s a prevalence of racial inequality embedded in the state’s social framework — the death of nine black churchgoers in Charleston this summer surely still resonates with the community.

Charleston is only two hours from Columbia, and as recently as 1961, black Americans were being sentenced to chain gangs for violating Jim Crow laws. Not to mention, S.C. remains one of the only five states left in the U.S. without laws addressing hate crimes.

You read that correctly — South Carolina has no systems in place to employ federal investigation into instances of racially motivated hate crimes. People of color have faced disparities of wealth and violence for their children and these inequalities have played out on a national scale in places that should be safe: churches and schools.

Teachers don’t run the class

One distinct evolution in public high schools is the less-involved role of teachers as authority figures. The discrediting of teacher-authority, the inherent biases and power dynamics at play in any police encounter and students’ disillusionment with the institution of learning makes for a volatile mixture leading to incidents like this.

Teachers, at one point, helped mediate their students’ socialization into larger society. More recently, that paradigm has been mitigated by incidents of inappropriate sexual misconduct, conflicting views regarding standardized lesson plans and harsh enforcement of zero tolerance policies.

Poor treatment and respectability of teachers can also be attributed to gender and race dynamics, as the National Center of Education Statistics reports that the last five years have seen the teaching workforce comprised of 77 percent females.

Wage gaps also persist between men and white women, and between white women and women of color — and the National Center of Education Statistics indicates the average wages for teachers in South Carolina is below the national average of $56,383 a year.

Furthermore, criticism of “helicopter parenting” interfering with education has existed for decades, with the first notable publication being Gene Lyons’ “Why Teachers Can’t Teach” in 1979. This idea has persisted, and consequently resulted in poor teaching practices as criticized in a 2014 Time Magazine cover story titled “Bad Apples: It’s nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher.”

Between the numerous incidents of in-school violence first reported in the early ’90s by the National School Safety Center, frozen funding pipelines for public schools and consistently increasing class sizes, “helicopter parenting” and low teaching wages, the means for providing quality education is crumbling.

Fields has been officially discharged following review of the incident by the sheriff’s office. At a press conference, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott explained how the maneuver used by Fields was incongruent with standards for arrest and dealing with juveniles.

Lott has previously defended Fields’ actions, but following national scrutiny, the Sheriff admitted Fields’ mistakes were indicative of the former officer’s inability to properly serve his duties. The deputy was fired from the sheriff’s department after an internal investigation, and a federal investigation is underway by Columbia FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina.

If getting the police involved is likely to escalate an otherwise nonviolent confrontation, why aren’t the faculty responsible for taking away a student’s cell phone also responsible for determining what constitutes unruly and disruptive behavior?

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