The increase in police presence at schools over the last two decades — partially in response to mass shootings — has brought street-level law enforcement into classrooms, leading cops to deploy tactics used to fight street crime on students.
Video footage of a white school resource officer slamming a black high school girl to the ground and tossing her across her Columbia, South Carolina, classroom has brought national attention to the use of police in schools — the latest alleged excessive force incident involving police and a reflection of the ongoing concern that black and Latino students receive disproportionately harsh punishments.
Within the last half decade, students, parents, and civil rights organizations have protested and filed lawsuits against officers working in schools in Alabama, California, Maryland, Kentucky, Utah, Florida, and elsewhere. The attention comes as local, state, and federal governments have increased funding for school law enforcement in response to recent school shootings. The result has been a growing number of officers who are trained to handle criminals — but assigned to help discipline middle school and high school students.
“In some cases police officers doing work in schools don’t always get specific training for dealing with kids,” said Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “And so you see them using tools used in the streets in the classrooms.”
An instructor at the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy, where the Richland County officer in question, Ben Fields, was trained to work in schools, told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday that officers are not taught to use defensive tactics, including physical restraint, in a school setting.
In the Spring Valley High School incident, school staff called for the officer because the girl had been disruptive and refused to leave class. The video, apparently filmed by one of her classmates, shows Fields asking her to get up and then, when she doesn’t, grabbing her and throwing her backwards onto the ground, before dragging her down the aisle.
Though the use of police officers in schools goes back decades, the widespread use seen today is relatively new.
“One of the things that happened in the wake of Columbine and other school shootings is the government made money available for the hiring of school resource officers,” Parker said.
From 1997 to 2007, the number of full-time police officers assigned to schools increased by 40%, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. By 2011, according to the Department of Justice, $905 million in federal grants had gone toward hiring and training more than 6,300 school resource officers, who are sworn law enforcement agents assigned to police schools.
"Calling them school resource officers can make you think they’re some specialized officers who are employed by the school district, but usually SROs are employed by the local law enforcement agency,” said Ebony Howard, a lawyer for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “They are full-out police officers. The difference between them and other officers is their beat is the school."
After a man shot and killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012, state legislatures across the country introduced proposals to increase police presence in schools. A small town in Minnesota stationed all eight of its police officers in public schools. In the year after the Sandy Hook massacre, the Department of Justice awarded $45 million to fund 356 new school resource officers nationally. Richland County, South Carolina, which includes Columbia, where the incident occurred, received $500,000 of that to hire four school resource officers. Today, there are more than 10,000 school resource officers nationwide.
“Whenever these school shootings happen there is a call to put more law enforcement officers in schools to protect students,” said Howard. “The justification for putting law enforcement in schools is to protect children but what’s actually happening is law enforcement officers are criminalizing misbehavior and pushing kids into the criminal justice system.”
Howard represented hundreds of Birmingham, Alabama, high school students in a 2010 class action lawsuit claiming that school resource officers in the district were using pepper spray “to enforce basic school discipline.” Over a four-year stretch, according to the suit, around 300 students were maced for infractions including “back talking” and “challenging authority.” A judge ruled that the officers’ use of pepper spray was unconstitutional.
In the years since, allegations of excessive force by school officers have continued.
In 2010, a Texas officer shot and killed a 14-year-old boy who ran after getting into a fight with another student. Though the boy was not armed, a grand jury failed to indict the officer, who claimed that the boy bull-rushed him. The school district settled with the family for $925,000.
In November 2013, another officer in Texas tased a 17-year-old student who was trying to break up a fight. The student hit his head when he fell and was in a coma for 52 days. The county reached a $775,000 settlement with the boy’s family.
In May 2014, a Houston family sued after an officer repeatedly struck a 16 year old with his metal nightstick. The teenager had been arguing with a teacher who had confiscated his cell phone.
In January, a Baltimore school resource officer hit a middle-school girl with a baton, leaving a gash that required 10 stitches. The confrontation, which was captured on video, began after the officer grabbed the girl’s friend for talking back.
“You see school staff tend to rely on law enforcement officers to execute school punishment and discipline."
In February, a 17-year-old girl suffered a concussion and a broken jaw after a school resource officer in Tampa, Florida, slammed her to the ground after school administrators accused her of aggressively confronting them.
And in April, a grand jury in Louisville, Kentucky, indicted a school resource officer on assault charges for punching a 13-year-old student and then, five days later, putting another 13-year-old student in a chokehold.
These violent encounters disproportionately involved students of color, Howard said. “It’s the criminalization of adolescence, particularly for black and Latino students,” Howard said. “It’s kids being arrested for things that you used to get suspended for or go to the principal’s office for.”
Department of Education studies show that black and Latino students often face harsher punishments than their white classmates. A 2014 study found that “black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students.” School staff are also more likely to call the police on students of color. A 2012 DOE study found that 70% of the students arrested or referred to law enforcement during the 2009-10 school year were black or Latino, even though those demographics represented only 42% of the population in the data.
“You see school staff tend to rely on law enforcement officers to execute school punishment and discipline,” Howard said.
In August, the ACLU sued a Kentucky school resource officer for handcuffing an 8-year-old and a 9-year-old who had misbehaved. Less than two weeks later, the National Association of School Resource Officers, which provides training across the country, released a statement “on police involvement in student discipline.” The organization recommended that “all school resource officers (SROs) be carefully selected law enforcement officers who have received specialized SRO training in the use of police powers and authority in a school environment.”
But while some states and school districts require specialized training for school resource officers, many do not. Officers then go into the job with only the training they received in the police academy. According to a 2013 study by Strategies for Youth, a nonprofit organization, academies in 37 states dedicated 1% or less of their total hours on juvenile justice issues.
“What we find is that very frequently the school resource officers receive either little or no training in dealing with the psychology of dealing with children,” Parker said.
Don Bridges, vice president of the National Association of School Resource Officers, cited a lack of training as the primary cause of excessive force incidents.
“I do believe that there needs to be more training and the training should not just be a one-time thing,” he said. “Being physical with a child is a last resort, not a first.”
According to Bridges, Fields, the South Carolina sheriff’s deputy in the video, did not receive training through the National Association of School Resource Officers, based on the organization's internal records.
Officers in schools often operate under the same use-of-force policies as the local police department. The result, Howard said, is that officers “get to the school and they treat it like a regular beat. They treat it like they would out on the streets.”
Albert Samaha is Inequality Editor at BuzzFeed News and author of two books, "Concepcion: An Immigrant Family's Fortunes" and "Never Ran, Never Will: Boyhood and Football in a Changing American Inner City." He is based in New York.
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