Time To Take The Police Out Of Schools
Nov. 3, 2015 (Mimesis Law) — Protect. Serve. Demand obedience. The last one is not on the doors of any police cars, but maybe it should be. As police violence towards citizens becomes more common, or at least gains more attention, is obedience really the solution to the problem? And is there any chance it is a realistic expectation of high school students? A significant number of people seem to think it is.
Last week at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, a 16-year old high school student learned the price of disobedience the hard way. Richland County Sheriff’s Department deputy Ben Fields was videotaped violently arresting the girl for “disturbing schools,” a vague South Carolina criminal offense that outlaws students being obnoxious on campus. In other words, the law outlaws teenagers from being teenagers.
The girl’s offense? Failing to hand over her cell phone when asked. According to reports from the classroom, she had her cell phone out and was asked to turn it over to the teacher. She refused. As the situation escalated, she continued to refuse to turn over her cell phone.
Unable to manage the girl’s refusal to give up the cell phone or leave the classroom, the teacher called in an assistant principal. The assistant principal was also unable to solve the problem, so he called in police backup. A call made much easier by actually having a deputy present at the school. Fields was the “school resource officer” assigned to Spring Valley High School – a cop assigned to the school. It didn’t take long after the deputy’s arrival for the situation to really escalate.
Videos from inside the classroom show Fields violently grabbing the young student, flipping her out of her desk, and dragging her across the floor. Fields arrested her for disturbing school. Niya Kenny, an 18-year old classmate who stood up for the girl, was also arrested for disturbing school.
None of the videos showed the students disturbing school. They did show a police officer manhandling a young girl. As expected, uproar has ensued. Everyone has an opinion. As the story developed, many people argued the officer did nothing wrong and the young girl deserved the violent reaction for refusing to follow instructions.
This argument is summarized neatly by the title of an opinion piece by ex-rocker Ted Nugent: “That high school brat had it coming.” Nugent, an outspoken conservative activist, takes the position that a basic principle of life is to obey. He takes it even further:
Obey and everything will go smoothly.
Obey and you won’t get beat.
Obey and you won’t get maced.
Obey and they won’t stun gun you.
Obey and you won’t get shot.
Obey and you won’t get ripped from your desk and put under control.
Those verses probably wouldn’t make a very good rock song. They would make a pretty good Soviet anthem, though. Nugent, and those who hold similar opinions on obedience to the police, would probably be surprised to know blind obedience has always been a basic tenet of dictatorships.
The logic that following orders from police will protect you from them is full of flaws. The idea that following orders from the police is our duty is downright scary. But in this situation, it also misses the point.
Deputy Fields didn’t actually order the girl at Spring Valley to do anything. There was no visible dispute going on when he grabbed her and flung her from her desk. She hadn’t challenged his authority in any meaningful way.
The idea of obedience runs contrary to all that we know about high school students. Teenagers are at a time in their lives where they are both locating and testing boundaries. They are rebellious. They are disobedient. And they are obnoxious. This is not something new. It has been going on as long as high schools have been around. While it’s not an excuse for bad behavior, it doesn’t warrant escalating school discipline to a police matter.
Putting police inside schools was a way to protect students from outside threats. It has morphed from a form of protection for the students to an extra layer of disciplinary authority. By taking normal teenage behavior and criminalizing it, we have set up our schools to have no room for the rebellion associated with youth.
Add in law enforcement’s belief that they are to be obeyed under all circumstances and the inevitable outcome is disaster. And Deputy Fields’ actions in that classroom are a disaster. A kid not following instructions, which is a relatively normal occurrence in high school, doesn’t warrant an arrest, much less a forceful arrest.
The girl was certainly insolent. She may have even been disruptive. But making her behavior criminal accomplishes nothing. The girl was a high school student. A teenager. The one group of people we almost expect to challenge authority.
Deputy Fields is responsible for this incident. It was caused by his expectation of blind obedience from a student. As a school resource officer, he showed little knowledge of high school students.
Fields has now been fired from the sheriff’s department, because he “did wrong” according to Sheriff Leon Lott. But even after firing him, Lott refused to take a position on whether Fields was in the wrong:
He’s sorry that this whole thing occurred,” said Sheriff Lott, who said he had spoken to Deputy Fields. “It was not his intent. His intent was not to do anything that brought discredit on this Sheriff’s Department or him or that school. He tried to do his job, and that’s what he feels like he did. He tried to do his job, and it happened very quickly.
Lott’s quote sheds light on why Fields appeared so unprepared for dealing with this student. As his supervisor, Lott should share in the responsibility for Fields’ actions. The elected Sheriff should certainly be able to recognize the problem with this incident.
The teacher and assistant principal also bear responsibility for this incident. Just because the police are down the hall does not mean they should be called in every time a student won’t listen to a teacher.
The common response to this criticism is that teenagers need to learn respect. A forceful show of authority will teach them a lesson and make them better for it in the long run. If they will just learn to do as they are told, we can avoid all of these problems with law enforcement.
If there is a group of people that needs to learn to deal with situations responsibly, its school officials and the police. There were other ways to handle the girl. Teenagers have always been defiant – that is nothing new. What is new is the handling of school discipline with police force. It’s not working.