‘Disturbing Schools’ Law and School Resource Officers Criminalize Teens

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StairsThe video of a school resource officer violently slamming an African-American teenage girl to the floor and then dragging her across the classroom when she refused to get out of her seat spread across social media on Monday, and was soon picked up by the national media. Deputy Ben Fields, the Richland County officer assigned to police the Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, has since been fired and is now the focus of an FBI civil rights inquiry. Anyone who has watched the video can see that there is no justification for such brute force, and that this officer had no business working with children — or with the public in general.

The Richland County Sheriff fired Officer Fields for using excessive force in violation of department policies. Yet while many are celebrating his termination, the incident exposes a deeper problem in South Carolina, and in schools across the nation. South Carolina state law allows children to be arrested merely on the charge of “disturbing schools,” a 1976 law designed to prevent “outside agitation” by anti-war organizers on college campuses during the Vietnam war. The law has since been used to allow resource officers in middle schools and high schools to arrest thousands of mostly African-American students who “disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school” or who “act in an obnoxious manner.”

The student’s offense in this incident was using her cellphone and then refusing to get up when asked by a teacher. A second student who questioned the officer’s behavior was also arrested for disturbing schools. In South Carolina, these are both prosecutable offenses and in many cases result in a juvenile delinquency adjudication for youth who are simply behaving like teenagers. If the officer had not used excessive force, the arrest would have been legally justified.

[Related: Advocates Offer Solutions for Kids at Crossroads of School, Justice System]

Most states do not have laws on the books that give police such a wide range of latitude to arrest a student. But across the nation, school disciplinary matters in low-income communities of color have increasingly been assigned to law enforcement via memoranda of understanding (MOU) between the school district and the local police department. School resource officers, often paid for by federal subsidies, patrol urban high schools and are routinely involved in handling matters once referred to the principal’s office. In New York City, for example, there are more than 5,000 school safety agents policing schools — and only about 3,000 guidance counselors. It is no surprise that arrests of students in school has increased, even as violent crime in schools has decreased.

hub_arrow_2-01Thankfully there is a movement afoot to reverse these disturbing trends. School districts like Oakland, California, have embraced a restorative approach to school discipline that stresses both support and accountability, and has resulted in significant decreases in violence, suspensions and arrests on campuses.

New York City is renegotiating the agreement between the city’s department of education and police department, with the intent of limiting the number of behaviors for which a student can be arrested. Many educators, police chiefs and community members are rethinking a zero-tolerance approach to school discipline that relies on armed officers as the first responders to student misconduct.

Officer Ben Fields has been fired. Yet his termination cannot make us forget the uncomfortable truth that police officers have been given the legal authority, either by state law or local agreement to arrest children for youthful misbehavior. Until laws like South Carolina’s “disturbing schools” statute are repealed, MOUs are renegotiated, and fiscal incentives to police schools are reversed, incidences like this one will continue to happen.

Rev. Rubén Austria is the founder and executive director of Community Connections for Youth, a Bronx-based nonprofit whose mission is to empower grassroots faith and neighborhood organizations to develop effective community-driven alternatives to incarceration for youth.

More related articles:

How to Explain and Protect Youth of Color From Police Misconduct, Trauma

Baltimore Adults Seek ‘Teachable Moments’ for Youths After Riots

They’re Not ‘Thugs’ — They’re Our Children

3 thoughts on “‘Disturbing Schools’ Law and School Resource Officers Criminalize Teens

  1. I will agree that the LEO went a little too far because the young lady wasn’t fighting back but he shouldn’t have been fired. He came to the aid of the teacher and school administrator who had no authority to force that student to comply to the rules of the school. And that is the sad state of affairs in the public school system across these USA especially in urban areas. Schools are impotent and the students are very aware that teachers and administrators can do nothing to them no matter how defiant, disrespectful, or belligerent they choose to be. That’s why resource officers are needed in the school. He was a last resort because this young lady was not in compliance. The message now sent to all the other students across the nation is that they have the right to defy teachers and administrators and may even be rewardedd for doing so because now we can’t even call the resource officer to help.

  2. That officer deserved to get fired. He had no right abusing her. Things need to change. The police should not be allowed to shoot unarmed non violent citizens regardless. The police should not be allowed to body slam, shove them to the ground just because they aren’t listening. I think if someone is resisting, then they should have back up to get the handcuffs on. The police should be made at all times to where a body cam and have it where you can see everything. The girl in the school with a cell phone, she should receive counseling to help her. She has no family, since her mother died. She was put in foster care. I am white, and I am appalled that black people are being treated differently. This is 2015 why is this still allowed? White people have shot up schools, and white people are worried about the African American’s?

  3. You don’t know what you are talking about. legally justified? just so you know there is a difference in a justified arrest and one that isn’t. It has nothing to do with the matter in which an arrest takes place, but WHY the arrest is taking place. LEO’s are allowed to use what ever necessary force they need to in order to effect an arrest. Have you seen the one where the LEO bust’s out the woman’s window and drags her out of the car? This was a witch hunt. It was the girls actions that precipitated this event, not the LEO.