photo by Donald Lee Pardue
Suppose you observed a man and his teenage daughter in a restaurant.
The man tells his daughter to get up, and she refuses. So he throws her backward out of her chair, grabs her and bodily drags her out of the restaurant. Is this an example of good parenting or a case of assault?
Now suppose the recalcitrant person in the chair is the man’s wife, rather than his daughter. Justified actions or clear-cut domestic abuse?
Of course a spouse, unlike a child, is not legally subject to the discipline of the person who declares himself master of the house. But what if the person who is thrown for refusing to cooperate is legitimately subject to the authority of the thrower - whether a father, a teacher or a principal? Does a position of authority carry with it the right to exercise physical force with impunity?
That is the question that has been raised by the events at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina. And it is also part of a bigger question about the role of police officers on school campuses.
I don’t have any trouble answering the question of what that role should be. It is to protect students, teachers and school administrators. End of story. Cops should protect them from outsiders and physical danger, as well as from any crime perpetrated by the school population. But a lot of cops, and many of their bosses, have real trouble with boundaries. They seem to think that if you put them inside a school, they are not just protectors; they are investigators, enforcers, judges and juries, at the disposal of school authorities. Or, in some cases, perhaps that the school authorities are at the disposal of the police.
As Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County, South Carolina, said in a news conference, school officials “have to understand when they call us, we’re going to take a law enforcement action.” In other words, police officers are hammers. Don’t blame them if everything looks like a nail.
The incident at Spring Valley High has sparked fervent national debate after video emerged of a white police officer, Ben Fields, grabbing and throwing a black student when she refused to get up from her desk. The student, who allegedly disturbed class, was arrested on the classroom floor. Several of her classmates recorded the incident. One, who yelled at Fields for his conduct, was also arrested on the charge of “disturbing schools,” the same charge leveled against the student Fields threw.
Fields has been fired, and a civil rights investigation by the Justice Department could eventually lead to criminal charges. But the unnamed student, who is 16, still faces prosecution. In his statement, Lott - who was Fields’ boss - said that while Fields did wrong, “We must not lose sight that this whole incident started by this student.” Fields’ attorney, going further, called his client’s actions “justified and lawful.”
While some adults are eager to remind everyone that the 16-year-old was partly to blame for refusing to put a cell phone away, I have not found any person in authority accusing a teacher or administrator at Spring Valley of failing to protect this child or failing to report abuse in connection with the incident. In fact, Columbia school administrators seem eager to portray Fields as a lone “bad apple,” expressing concern about him in particular but not about the role of law enforcement in their schools more generally, or about the school staff who decided to call him in despite the fact no one was in danger. The only people in that room with the sense to stand up for that child were her fellow students, who were rewarded with threats of arrest and, in one case, actual charges.
We do not know what was going on with the student in question that day, but anyone who has been around teenagers knows that they all have bad days. They all misbehave and act out sometimes. Often, what they really need is a safe place to talk about what is on their minds and someone to listen. That sense of safety was destroyed for that child that day by a person in uniform. And it was damaged as well for a lot of other children who witnessed and recorded the incident.
The increasing prominence of police officers on school campuses means that encounters like the one at Spring Valley are shamefully common, even if they usually don’t go viral. The exceptions, in which officers remember that even unruly teenagers are children and treat them with empathy, demonstrate that it does not have to be this way. Consider a Washington, D.C. officer who recently defused a tense situation by challenging a teen to a “dance-off,” captured on video by onlookers.
Police officers generally need to be told that the only time to put their hands on someone, teenager or adult, is to protect themselves, that person or bystanders from physical harm. When a citizen does not follow a cop’s instructions, the default answer should not be a body slam, a chokehold, a stun gun or a bullet. Yet we’ve seen all of these lately, from officers on forces across the country.
Firing Fields was necessary but insufficient. If he is not prosecuted, the parents and other sensible citizens in Columbia should hold the sheriff and other local authorities responsible. They should also hold the school board accountable for failing to properly supervise and control the cops in their schools and on their payroll. In addition to serving as the school resource officer, Fields was an assistant football coach.
Children are not footballs. You don’t toss them around to get them to do what you want. It is a lesson that extends well beyond one former deputy in South Carolina.