For Black Girls, Teenage Behavior Is Criminal

A viral video of a student's violent arrest in math class raises serious questions about the role of police officers in schools.
(Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu/Getty Images)
Oct 27, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

Footage of a female student being dragged from her desk in a South Carolina classroom by a school resource officer went viral on Monday. The disturbing video should serve as a stark reminder that schools aren’t always the safe places they should be, especially for black girls.

Cell phone video captured by several of the high school student’s peers show officer Ben Fields of the Richland County Sheriff’s Office standing over her desk asking her to stand up. When she remains seated, Fields puts his forearm around her neck, flips her desk over, and drags her toward the front of the classroom before handcuffing her.

The deputy, who has been placed on administrative leave, has previously faced accusations of excessive force and racial bias, according to The Post and Courier. Fields is white; the student is black.

Students say the girl had her cell phone out in math class and refused to hand it over to her teacher. Niya Kenny, another student, was also arrested for crying and yelling at the officer during the incident and charged under South Carolina’s disturbing schools law. The law, which has been in place since the 1970s, allows school resource officers to arrest students who disrupt, disturb, or interfere with school classes or functions.

“The horrific incident is not about one bad officer, but also about larger policies that criminalize students in schools in South Carolina and across the country,” Mishi Faruqee, the national field director for juvenile justice reform group Youth First Initiative, told TakePart. “Under South Carolina’s Disturbing Schools law, even routine disciplinary problems are treated as crimes.”

Students of color in particular bear the brunt of the criminalization Faruqee describes. Nationally, black boys are the most harshly punished group of students in U.S. schools, and black girls are suspended at six times the rate of their white female peers, according to a study released last year by the African American Policy Forum.

They are also at increased risk of expulsion, making it less likely for black girls to graduate from high school on time or ultimately attend college. Expulsion can set students on a path to criminal justice system that advocates call the school-to-prison pipeline.

Police have been present in schools for decades—particularly in low-income communities of color—but some experts also tie their increased presence to the rise in school shootings. After Columbine, the Department of Justice invested $876 million to fund the presence of nearly 7,000 school resource officers like Fields. During the 20132014 school year, there were more than 82,000 officers working in public schools.

The increased presence of these officers in schools has proved counterproductive in terms of public safety, and increases the likelihood that normal teenage behavior will be classified as criminal and reported to the police, according to The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform advocacy group.

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Tony Robinson Jr., one of the students who filmed the incident, described it to local news channel WLTX19.

“That [officer is] supposed to be somebody that's going to protect us,” Robinson said. “Not somebody that we need to be scared of, or afraid."

On Tuesday, following the request of the Richland County Sheriff, federal authorities announced they had opened a civil rights investigation into the incident at Spring Valley High School.