S.C. cop fired: Why school districts are rethinking police as disciplinarian

Districts are rethinking 'disturbance' laws, like the one that a South Carolina student was arrested for by a school resource officer, who was fired Wednesday for tossing her across a classroom.

This photo, made from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student on Monday, shows Senior Deputy Ben Fields trying to forcibly remove a student from her chair after she refused to leave her high school math class, in Columbia S.C. The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation Tuesday after Fields flipped the student backward in her desk and tossed her across the floor.

The school resource officer in South Carolina who sparked outrage when he forcibly removed a student from her chair lost his job Wednesday. But advocates for reforms in school discipline and policing say the incident is about more than one “bad apple.”

Many states have laws that give police broad authority for charging students with minor offenses. In recent years, however, advocates from Illinois to California to Texas have successfully pushed for some reforms to narrow the role that police play in school discipline matters.

These advocates have been able to create memorandums of understanding with local police in some school districts, change laws that allowed arrests for truancy and other status offenses, and mandate training for school administrators that encourages them to consider alternative discipline solutions.

The girl at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C., reportedly refused to leave her seat when a teacher and an administrator asked her to do so following a disagreement over her cellphone. She was charged with disturbing the schools. That charge is based on a broad South Carolina law originally meant to protect against loiterers and intruders, but it has been used more against students in recent decades.

“We have this unfortunate situation where we’ve specifically criminalized school behavior,” says Derek Black, a professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law in Columbia.

It’s important to take steps toward reform, advocates say, because without limits there’s been a school-to-prison pipeline. “At the end of the day, school officials are channeling the behavior to the school resource officer,” Professor Black says.

Summit on reforming school discipline

The Education Department has brought together school leaders from around the country to share best practices in reforming school discipline policies. But much remains to be done between becoming aware of the problem and effectively implementing reforms, some say.

“My understanding is the district in this [South Carolina] case had just adopted a new discipline code and officials from that district were at the [recent national] summit ... so why did this still happen?” says Janel George, senior education policy counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Washington.

Even a girl who recorded the treatment of the other student on her cellphone was arrested under the “disturbing schools” law.

But Ms. George sees hope in two trends. One is that a number of school districts, such as Los Angeles, are outlining the role of police more clearly and are eliminating the broad category of “willful defiance” from their causes for suspension. The other is the proliferation of training for educators and administrators in “implicit bias” – helping them understand that they might be too quick to interpret some students’ behavior as threatening because of engrained stereotypes.

For example, nationally, black girls are suspended about six times as often as their white peers, the Education Trust-West reports.

Consider the following developments as policymakers have considered reforms:

• When Los Angeles dropped the willful defiance category for suspensions and made other discipline reforms, the number of days lost to suspension declined by more than 50 percent. In all school districts in California, a law last year removed willful defiance for suspension, but only in Grades K-3.

• In Clayton County, Ga., cooperation between schools and the juvenile courts led to an 83 percent reduction in arrests for misdemeanor offenses like fighting and disorderly conduct.

• Illinois recently passed a comprehensive school discipline reform law.

But even that law doesn’t restrict the authority of police in schools as youth advocates originally hoped it would, says Raul Botello, co-executive director of Communities United, which helped bring together the coalition Voices for Youth in Chicago Education.

“Police are in schools to keep us safe ... yet all these videos keep surfacing showing ... police brutality against students,” says Antonio Magic, a junior at Roosevelt High School in Chicago and a member of the coalition. An African-American, he says he was singled out by a police officer and arrested during a walkout at school protesting budget cuts.

Mr. Botello notes that the law does mandate de-escalation approaches before officers are brought into disciplinary matters.

At least 17 states have broad laws about disturbing school activities, though several of them do not apply to students.

South Carolina's law

The law in question in the South Carolina case makes it a crime “to interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college in this State.” A violation is punishable by up to $1,000 in fines or up to 90 days in jail.

The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina tried to raise the disturbing-schools law during legislative discussions about sentencing reform in 2010, but didn’t get traction. Now it plans to try again. The first step was to put in a Freedom of Information Act request this week to the sheriff’s office and the school district to pin down data about school arrests since 2010.

As of 2011-12, estimates from South Carolina showed 2,182 school-based arrests and 3,203 referrals to law enforcement.

“We think the data on school arrests is unreliable,” says Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “Some districts that have reported high discipline rates have shown zero arrests,” she says, and that’s suspect.

With different training, a school resource officer in a situation like the South Carolina one might have pulled up a desk next to the girl refusing to leave, let the other students finish and go on to their next class, and then tell her he’d be sitting there having lunch or reading until she was too bored and moved on, suggests Kenneth Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services.

But sometimes, it’s not until a shocking incident like the viral video this week that school administrators are forced to take a hard look at how they are relying on police, Mr. Trump says. In one workshop he held in the Midwest, a school superintendent was “quite surprised that officers had been routinely handcuffing students” in transit to the principal’s office for disciplinary matters.

“The bottom line is you cannot legislate common sense,” Trump says, but “you can attempt to negate some of these potential scenarios through training.”

In Los Angeles, school resource officers and administrators have both undergone more training on how to handle sensitive situations. “When kids are acting up in certain situations, it’s a cry for help.... We have to have the ability to have active listening skills. My police officers ... will sit there and listen to a kid,” says Rudy Perez, vice president of the Los Angeles School Police Association and a regional director for the national association.

Mr. Perez says he hopes people will wait for full investigations before jumping to conclusions about incidents like the one in South Carolina. And he encourages parents to ask questions of school resource officers before there’s a controversial incident.

Pepper spray in Alabama

In Birmingham, Ala., it’s taken a ruling from a federal judge to get school resource officers to reexamine their use of pepper spray on students.

Between 2006 and 2011, officers there used pepper spray on 300 students in 110 incidents involving minor disciplinary problems such as back-talking and challenging authority, alleged a class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC).

One of the plaintiffs in the suit was a 10th-grader who was crying after trying to get away from a boy making sexual comments. After an officer told her to calm down, she was pepper-sprayed in the face and handcuffed because she did not stop crying, the girl testified.

In his Sept. 30 order that the police department work with the SPLC to come up with a new policy on pepper spray use in schools, US District Judge Abdul Kallon noted that the way the spray had been used was an excessive use of force and was unconstitutional. The Birmingham police chief and the six school officers involved are appealing the order.

Before the lawsuit, the plaintiffs and their families didn’t know there was anything they could do – “they thought it was normal for [school resource officers] to be using mace on students in schools,” says Ebony Howard, the SPLC’s lead attorney on the case. They bravely stood up in court in front of a row of uniformed officers to tell how they had been affected, she says. “To see them realize that sometimes you can pursue justice ... that’s been incredible for them.” 

Ms. Howard hopes that, from the Birmingham case and incidents like the one in South Carolina, the nation “can have a deep conversation about what it is we expect law enforcement officers in our schools to do.”

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