COMMENTARY: Captured on video, a white South Carolina school police officer violently tosses a black student out of her desk, drags her across the floor and cuffs her as she’s sprawled on the floor. Captured on video. That’s key. Because across the country, questionable police actions at schools are mostly a hidden phenomenon.
Nationwide, in incidents that rarely get publicly aired, thousands of students are also getting arrested, ticketed, interrogated and searched by police officers, often in connection with minor indiscretions or allegations they were disruptive.
Some police actions involve alarming physical altercations, with kids subdued and handcuffed. Others may be handled without much force. But law-enforcement involvement in school discipline has routinely resulted in kids — some as young as elementary school-age — summoned to court to answer charges that they committed crimes. Frequently, charges include battery or assault in connection with schoolyard fights or disorderly conduct or disturbing the peace at school — issues that some believe should be handled by school officials, not cops.
A kid doesn’t even have to be a teen for this to happen.
As the Center for Public Integrity recently reported, 11-year-old Kayleb Moon-Robinson, in Lynchburg, Virginia, was “slammed” down, as the sixth grader said, after a school principal asked a resource officer to stop Kayleb in a hallway because the boy walked out of class without permission.
Kayleb is autistic. The officer told him to go the office. He didn’t comply immediately. And the officer grabbed him. Kayleb struggled and used some foul language — and ended up wrestled to the floor, handcuffed and charged with felony assault on a police officer, as well as disorderly conduct.
Other kids’ cases revealed in the Center report include middle-schoolers arrested for school fights and even charged with resisting arrest. A 12-year-old girl who clenched her fist at a cop ended up with a charge of obstruction of justice.
A growing group of judges, educators and civil-rights lawyers says that research and experience has convinced them this trend has gone too far. They say that prosecuting kids in court for low-level accusations like disorderly conduct and battery is actually backfiring; kids become stigmatized, develop records and often disengage from school.
The risk increases that they’ll progress to more serious trouble, especially if core emotional or mental-health or learning problems go unresolved or inadequately treated.
The Obama Administration has also sounded the alarm. Officials are urging school districts — whose administrators and boards hold a lot of sway — to keep the business of routine discipline in the hands of schools and counselors, not law enforcement. Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Catherine Lhamon told the Center that disorderly conduct allegations are a “red flag” for her office, which can investigate school districts and withhold federal funds if kids’ civil rights are violated.
To get a sense of the national landscape, the Center analyzed national data collected from schools by the U.S. Department of Education for the 2011-12 school year. South Carolina’s rate of student “referrals to law enforcement” — this could include arrests — was not above the national state-by-state average. The state overall came in at 5 per 1,000, compared to about 6 per 1,000 nationally.
However, the state’s numbers did show a pattern of disproportionate referrals of black students — students like the girl in the South Carolina video. Black students represented almost 36 percent of the state’s public school student body, but they were 50 percent of all students referred to law enforcement. Spring Valley High School, where the video was shot, reported no arrests or referrals that year. Schools are currently sending in data to the federal education department for an updated collection that won’t be released until next year, most likely.
The video of the girl getting manhandled and arrested in Columbia, S.C. has touched a nerve. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott has reportedly asked the FBI to investigate the officer’s conduct.
When it comes to how police conduct themselves schools—and what their purpose is—schools are governed by a patchwork of laws and policies that differ state by state, district by district, sometimes school by school. Virginia, for one, has now launched a statewide effort to retrain school police. The 2011 data the Center analyzed showed that statewide Virginia’s rate of referring students to law enforcement was 16 per 1,000, the highest in the country.
Ferriss is a reporter with the Center for Public Integrity.