There has been a lot of talk about the teen girl violently attacked by a school resource officer in South Carolina this week. The attack at Spring Valley High School sheds more light on the school to prison pipeline, an issue I have covered extensively and continue to advocate against. Zero tolerance policies, coupled with criminal truancy policies and the increased presence of police officers in schools is a volatile mix that leads to the introduction of mostly black and brown bodies into the criminal justice system as children. Once this happens, students are more likely to drop out of high school and be involved in the criminal justice system as adults.
Another aspect of this case that’s finally gaining attention is the treatment of black girls in particular. Studies show black children on the whole are seen as less innocent than their peers, and black girls are seen as argumentative and ill-mannered when engaging in the same behavior called assertive in white girls. These attitudes bear out when you note black girls are more than 6 times more likely to face out of school suspension than white girls. Strikingly, the differences in perception and discipline begin as early as pre-kindergarten. We have to acknowledge this data and end both the automatic perception of wrongdoing and the disproportionate discipline meted out to these children if we’re ever going to get serious about saving our girls.
Zero tolerance in this case shows up as an aggressive school resource officer summoned to attack a girl over chewing gum or a cell phone. These infractions rarely cause a child to be ejected from class, and should never be enough to even think about having her forcibly removed. To be crystal clear, this child did NOTHING to deserve to be removed from class, and NOTHING to deserve the physical beating she endured. Many who would say her “lack of respect” was a contributing factor don’t understand teenage psychology or common sense discipline practices. As a former high school teacher, I have seen actual fights between students resolved with nothing more than a stern look and soft hand on the back, with even softer words spoken in the ear. These are children. As many have said, if a parent went to the school and did what the officer did to this girl sitting quietly in her seat, they would have been arrested on site.
Finally, school resource officers in classrooms should be abolished immediately. These officers instill fear in children, especially those in neighborhoods (read: America) known to be hostile to black and brown people. Turning schools into mini prisons, complete with metal detectors, barbed wire and guards is psychologically detrimental to students. It’s psychological warfare on black and brown children especially when you consider the harshest schools are in their communities. How can one be open to learning when everything around you screams “criminal?” Every interaction these children have continually tells them they aren’t valued, then they are assaulted at school for being human. This has to stop, and it has to stop now.