The Elephant in the Classroom: Why Did South Carolina Educators Call the Cops?
The viral video of an armed, uniformed school resource officer manhandling an African American student in a South Carolina classroom has spurred an intense debate about the presence of law enforcement in mostly minority schools—which critics say helps fill the school-to-prison pipeline.
But the snippet of video showing sheriff’s deputy Ben Fields roughing up the unidentified student—and Fields’ subsequent firing—misses the big picture and absolves the teacher and school administrator for calling in the cop in the first place.
Tyrone Howard, a professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and a specialist in race and education, says the incident is a textbook example of why teachers need more training in how to handle disruptive students. But he also says it underscores the need for a deeper understanding of racial bias, in African American teachers as well as white ones.
The arrest “was excessive and reprehensible, if you think about it,” said Howard, who was a classroom teacher before becoming an academic. As the arrest unfolded, “the teacher in the [video] clip I saw stood by and watched and didn’t intervene,” said Howard.
But the “important question,” Howard added, is “what those teachers are doing to prevent these issues in the first place.”
Camika Royal, a professor of urban education at Loyola University in Maryland, questioned whether the classroom teacher—identified as Robert Long, a veteran educator—did enough to defuse the situation.
“Instead of making her cell phone and/or her behavior the focus of his class, he could have told her he would deal with her after class,” Royal wrote in an email to TakePart. “Because of his choice not to let it go, to contact the administrator instead, he kept students from learning, and he disrupted the learning environment.”
In the classroom, wrote Royal, "power struggles with students rarely end well.”
The incident, which happened Monday at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, hit the national news when video of the student’s arrest surfaced on social media. When the teenager pulled out her cell phone in math class and ignored the teacher’s order to put it away, according to various reports, a school administrator asked the 16-year-old to leave; Fields was then called in.
The video shows the burly deputy flipping her chair and desk backward, body slamming her to the floor, dragging her to the front of the classroom, and then handcuffing her facedown. Other students in the class were appalled.
Fields was suspended, then fired on Wednesday from the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.
The incident triggered a national debate over harsh methods and over-disciplining of kids in the classroom. According to SchoolDigger.com, Spring Valley High’s enrollment in 2014 was 50.8 percent black and 30.4 percent white. Studies show African American students are far likelier to face punishment—suspension, expulsion, even arrest—than are their white peers.
Howard said while the debates over discipline are valuable, they miss what should be the main target: ending the disproportionate punishment of black students through more effective training of teachers. That includes helping them learn to de-escalate classroom confrontations and understanding that teenagers are biologically impulsive and resistant to authority because their brains are still developing.
However, according to Howard, the training should also focus on “implicit bias”: the scientifically proved concept that even black or Latino teachers likely have some subtle negative feelings toward minorities, a factor that can affect decisions to punish a student.
While most teachers have the tools to avoid confrontations, “we need to rethink how our teachers are trained” so they’re not so quick to rely on harsh discipline measures, Howard said, particularly because 80 percent of the nation’s teachers are white. But most minority teachers serve in mostly minority schools, which tend to be underserved, often have the heaviest police presence, and have the highest rates of students suspended, expelled, or under arrest.
“In that discussion, teachers of color are often left off the hook,” Howard said.
But Royal wrote that training, or lack thereof, isn’t the only factor in student-versus-teacher confrontations.
“That suggests this teacher wasn't trained in classroom management. He probably was,” she wrote. “This isn't just about training. This is about teachers learning to be humble and compassionate, teachers operating from a spirit of concern for students' learning and well-being instead of an attempt to control their behaviors.”
That mind-set, added Royal, “has to be chosen and developed by educators who believe their students are whole, evolving, complicated people who deserve respect—not children who are meant to be quiet and controlled.”