I watched that viral video — this week, from a math class in Columbia, S.C. — and found myself taking a mental off-ramp. The video shows a white sheriff’s deputy grabbing a black female student around her neck, knocking her over in her chair and dragging her to the front of the classroom after she had reportedly refused to put away her cellphone or leave class.
I took a moment to imagine that girl in the full attitudinal throes of teenage noncompliance. Then I said to myself, like Matthew McConaughey said to jurors in the 1996 movie “A Time to Kill”: Now imagine she’s white.
Imagine Dakota Fanning getting wrestled and flung across a classroom by an officer — who reportedly can bench-press 600 pounds — because she didn’t put away her phone.
Got empathy yet?
Deputy Ben Fields — the subject of two federal lawsuits (one dismissed, one pending) for allegations of excessive force and racial bias — also detained another student for crying and protesting too much as she witnessed the incident. At the request of the Richland County sheriff, federal authorities opened a civil rights investigation Tuesday. On Wednesday, Fields was fired.
While this latest installment in the police-vs.-citizen video canon is, like so many others, inherently racial, it also offers an opportunity to raise questions about the adultification of children, the criminalization of schools, and how, in some ways, a focus on those questions might allow us to transcend black and white.
Everybody knows how difficult and defiant teenage years can be. But few of us want to imagine ourselves, or our children, flung across a room in the middle of them.
Gabriel Benn has been a D.C. educator and administrator for 18 years and is now an educational consultant. The video, shot by a student, doesn’t show what happened before Fields arrived, but the student’s “type of behavior is normal,” Benn says. “For a kid to be noncompliant, that’s not an uncommon thing.”
Regardless of the infraction, Benn calls the response unjustified. “Your role and quality as a public servant is, ‘How do I defuse this situation?’ I’m the adult here. How do I get myself out of this conflict cycle? The problem with that video is it really doesn’t matter what that student said. She could have cussed the whole room out, it still doesn’t warrant that response. Is she doing anything illegal? Is she being arrested for anything? Is not paying attention in class a crime?”
Benn knows firsthand the exigencies of classroom management. If “I tell a student to remove your phone and they say no, I’m not putting that [expletive] away, which has happened to me, then you have ways to de-escalate the situation. . . . Unless the student is a danger to herself or others, there’s nothing physically you can do to her. So you find other ways to deal with it. Okay, that means tomorrow you can’t come into the school with the phone because you can’t follow the rules of our school.
“For [the teacher] to spend all that time on that sticking point with that one student, when you have 20 other students ready to learn, it’s a waste.”
In her new book, “Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice,” Carla Shedd, a Columbia University professor of sociology and African American studies, argues that schools are engines of social stratification and that what happens to kids in neighborhoods, schools and the criminal justice system all intersect.
Shedd says she wasn’t surprised when she saw the video. “Police say we use whatever level of force we need in order to make you comply,” she says. “They’re about their rights and the policies they can follow as police officers without thinking about the fact they’re dealing with children.”
She cites “Arresting Justice,” a 2011 report that calls the overreliance on arrests to address school discipline problems one of the most important developments over the past few years. “I talk about what the consequences are when young people are not given that developmental space to mess up, to act out or make mistakes like regular teenagers.” They are “doing things other kids might do, but they have police officers ready to control them.”
Shedd calls the video a corrective to the national conversation that mostly focuses on black males and police. “Black girls are not seen as feminine or in need of protection,” Shedd says. It’s “very different from what would happen if it were a white girl acting out.”
As Shedd and I are talking, she mentions “A Time to Kill,” and I realize we’re having the same association.
It’s a bitter pill, but one that may prove the most viscerally effective for the United States. “To have an empathy for black people, you have to put a white face on it. That says a lot,” Shedd says.
For more by O’Neal, visit wapo.st/lonnae.