Tuesday, October 27, 2015
A resource officer at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, pulled a female student from her desk by her neck, threw her to the floor, and then dragged her across the floor to another part of the room. The incident was caught on video and has gone viral. Apparently, the student had been disruptive and, at the moment of the incident, was refusing to follow instructions. The incident almost exactly mirrors one described in the U.S. Department of Justice's report on police involvement in Ferguson, Missouri's schools. At pages 37 and 38, DOJ cited that incident as part of a problematic trend of unreasonable enforcement action and added that it
demonstrates a lack of understanding of the negative consequences associated with such arrests. In fact, SROs told us that they viewed increased arrests in the schools as a positive result of their work. This perspective suggests a failure of training (including training in mental health, counseling, and the development of the teenage brain); a lack of priority given to de-escalation and conflict resolution; and insufficient appreciation for the negative educational and long-term outcomes that can result from treating disciplinary concerns as crimes and using force on students. See Dear Colleague Letter on the Nondiscriminatory Administration of School Discipline, U.S. Dep’t of Justice & U.S. Dep’t of Education.
During the media rounds last night, the video prompted predictable debates over whether the use of force was reasonable. Those debates included mind numbing defenses and recriminations that, in effect, repeated the conversations we have heard for the past year in regard to the deaths of several African Americans at the hands of police. While that conversation is obviously a very important one that should continue, it is the wrong one here.
The question here should not be whether the resource officer used reasonable force. The question should be why he was in the school to begin with and why, at this very moment, he was the one directed to resolve the situation. This is a question I have raised and implied on this blog several times. In the last two years, I have noted numerous stories of school resource officers choking, handcuffing, restraining, and locking up in isolation rooms elementary and middle school students, including students with special needs. One Georgia school even saw fit to begin housing rifles on campus.
The answer is simple. Save exceptional circumstances, law enforcement does not belong in school. School resource officers are not educators. They are not sufficiently trained to deal with students. They are not dispute resolution specialists. No doubt, incidents arise when school officials believe that the brute force of law enforcement is beneficial. Even were that the case, the rare benefit that they provide far outweighs the regular burden they bring. They change the culture for students and teachers in ways that are not productive. They bring official confrontation to school. They bring violence into school. They bring real weapons into school. And even if a school were to unwisely accept all of these things as necessary evils, the school should minimize the circumstances when law enforcement is brought to bear on a student. Schools must always be the front line of school discipline and almost always the end line as well. They should only absolve themselves from that role when absolutely necessary. It seems relatively clear that this was not the case in Spring Valley High School.