This week, video footage of a police officer slamming a female student out of her chair and dragging her across a classroom in a South Carolina high school shocked the nation. The officer has been put on leave, and the FBI is investigating the incident.
Watching the video, my heart broke — not just for this particular student but for her classmates who witnessed it and for all the students shuttled through the school system until some offense lands them in handcuffs.
Our nation’s prisons are overflowing, and huge swaths of the population have made their way directly from school into the justice system. Our prisons are filled with young black men who dropped out of school or were pushed out, left no choice than to work the streets. This path from student to convict is known colloquially as the school-to-prison pipeline. There’s no more glaring evidence of its existence than the presence of police officers in our schools, known as school resource officers. It’s a seemingly benign title but make no mistake: These are cops. And they simply have no business being there.
“Zero-tolerance” policies, which criminalize minor infractions committed by students, grew out of the zero-tolerance policy that swept the nation in the early 1970s, part of President Richard Nixon’s “law and order” push. Schools adopted their own version of the “broken windows” theory of policing, which emphasizes cracking down on small public offenses to deter more serious crimes. As part of this shift, police officers were integrated into the school system. Broken windows policing in the schools led to suspensions for infractions including talking back to teachers, truancy, horse play, uniform violations or other disobedient or uncooperative behavior. At any high school in America, this sort of behavior is part of the culture of being a teenager, black or white.
But it’s black students who are disproportionately punished for run-of-the-mill teenage behavior. Racial disparities in discipline in U.S. public schools begin as early as preschool, with black children three times more likely to be suspended, expelled and arrested than whites. Those who are suspended fall behind and are less likely to graduate on time. As one would suspect, they’re more likely to drop out and more likely to enter the juvenile justice system.
The infractions that get these kids in trouble are not the vicious, violent acts some might imagine: According to a report published by the state courts, 74 percent of arrests in New York City public schools in 2012 were for misdemeanors or civil violations. And according to the ACLU, in the 2011-2012 school year, more than 95 percent of school-based arrests were of black and Latino students. One report found that white children were more likely to be punished for objective offenses (smoking, vandalism, obscene language), while black children were most often disciplined for offenses like “being disrespectful, loitering and excessive noise.”
The pattern starts early: 48 percent of preschoolers who are suspended more than once are black. And the mere presence of school resource officers leads to a spike in arrests in schools. Schools with them had nearly five times the arrests as schools without.
As a black man raising a black child, I didn’t need to read up on the school-to-prison pipeline to become an expert on it. I have lived it. As a young man, I was suspended, expelled and arrested multiple times, mostly for frivolous and harmless behavior, including truancy, fighting and talking back to an officer. When I entered the juvenile justice system at age 14, I was fortunate to end up in a place that focused on rehabilitation and care. But this is not the case for most of our children who’ve been caught in this cycle. During the many focus groups and community meetings I participated in, following the deaths of Mike Brown and Eric Garner, the overwhelming majority of the young people we spoke to in schools, juvenile justice detention centers and out in the community stated that police officers were aggressive and physical in dealing with minor offenses. I’ve had similar encounters myself and mentor many young men who say the same.
The anger and frustration experienced by members in our community when it comes to school discipline and the school-to-prison pipeline come from a long and painful history — of oppression, inequity and brutality by those who are tasked to serve and protect. Technology has brought cameras into our world, allowing the rest of America to see a teenager girl violently flung out of her chair. There are now names and faces to match the data.
Would many officers have handled the situation differently than this officer in South Carolina did? Yes. Do his actions indicate that all officers are violent? Not at all. But the fact remains that law enforcement officials in our schools do little but create a fearful and adversarial environment in what should be a safe place. Like a military presence in a foreign land, police officers in schools set a wrong tone from the start. It’s unclear what good a police officer’s presence in school does. It terrifies some students, angers others and plainly communicates an adversarial relationship between students and authority that can only poison the learning environment.
Kids simply aren’t capable of doing better until they’re mature enough to do better. It’s our duty as trained professionals to understand this and treat our children with care, respect and love. Not handcuffs.