by Robert C. Koehler
Common Dreams. October 30, 2015
In this photo made from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student, Deputy Ben Fields tries to forcibly remove a student who refused to leave her high school math class near Columbia S.C. (Photo: Screenshot/AP)
So South Carolina has a special crime category called “disturbing schools,” which seems to be creating just that: disturbing schools. Very disturbing schools.
Not that I need to single out South Carolina. In my brief stint teaching writing as an outside consultant in several Chicago high schools, some 20 years ago, I was smacked broadside with the observation that the city’s educational system exhibited the behavior of an occupying army, at least in its low-income neighborhoods. Education was something imposed from above and force-fed to the students like bad-tasting medicine. It didn’t honor the students’ own culture.
What the kids needed was a generosity of understanding that the education system had no interest in giving them, preferring to help them along on their journey to adulthood with zero tolerance and metal detectors.
What has happened to our national intelligence, not to mention our national values? In the era of cellphone accountability, our lack thereof has a new poster boy: Officer Slam. Throw the insolent kid across the floor, break her arm if necessary, slap her in cuffs.
This is how we teach respect. This is how we teach math.
“I was screaming ‘What the f, what the f, is this really happening?’” These are the words of Niya Kenny, the brave young woman who stood up to Officer Ben Fields as he manhandled her classmate this past Monday at Spring Valley High School, in Columbia, S.C. “I was praying out loud for the girl. I just couldn’t believe this was happening.”
The girl’s infraction: staying glued to her cellphone and refusing to surrender it to the teacher.
Yeah, I know, that’s insolent. But it’s not a justification for “whatever it takes, just get the kid out of here.” In an educational system where compassionate sanity holds sway, schools have counselors. In some schools (including a growing number in Chicago), innovative programs like restorative justice change the whole teenager-adult dynamic. They hold peace circles. All parties in a misunderstanding have a chance to talk — and listen — to one another as equals. Misunderstandings get resolved, not prosecuted.
Granted, such programs are complex and bring change over time. To the bureaucratic mind, discipline may seem better achieved by having “resource officers” — policemen — on permanent duty at the school. Arresting a kid is quick and to the point and presumably teaches everyone a lesson. Someone else can worry about the long-term consequences.
Except, zero tolerance and the like have been going on since the ’80s. The long-term consequences are now. It’s called the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s called 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons in 2015, compared to less than 200,000 in 1968. And two more African-American teenage girls were welcomed into the American justice system on Monday: the girl with the cellphone and the girl who stood up in her defense. They were charged with “disturbing schools.”
But the school had reacted to their behavior with the emotional intelligence of a 4-year-old: pushing, fighting, walloping a smaller kid into submission. What educational message is contained in this official behavior? Kids are either good or bad and there’s nothing in between. Considering the possibility that some of the students at Spring Valley High might have troubled home lives and ache for guidance and support, how can Officer Slam be the guy that’s called when there’s an insolence issue in a classroom?
Maybe the school bureaucrats should try to learn something from Niya Kenny.
“I know this girl don’t got nobody and I couldn’t believe this was happening,” Kenny said, voicing compassion for her classmate. “I had never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl. A big man, like 300 pounds of full muscle. I was like ‘no way, no way.’ You can’t do nothing like that to a little girl.”
She added: “I was just crying and he said, ‘Since you have so much to say you are coming too.’ I just put my hands behind my back.”
And she’s rewarded for her courage and compassion by being slapped in handcuffs. God bless America.
Yes, Officer Fields was fired two days later. His cellphone-video performance absolutely could not be justified. His boss, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, told reporters that when he watched the video he “wanted to throw up.” This is, indeed, a new era of police accountability that we have entered, with de facto citizen review boards composed of millions of people watching police behavior on YouTube. Thumbs down on this one. We have our scapegoat. Now let’s get back to that math lesson, shall we?
What disturbs me the most about this event is that it’s obviously not just another “isolated incident.” The officer, known as Officer Slam to many of the students, had been throwing kids around for quite a while at the school and was facing a number of lawsuits accusing him of racial profiling. But he was just doing his job! His MO, and his racism, were tolerated until the video went viral. He worked in a context that dispensed education in an atmosphere of zero tolerance, and this context is what needs desperately to be addressed.
Ironically, law enforcement officials and politicians across the country, including, just the other day, FBI Director James B. Comey, have complained that what they call the “Ferguson Effect” — the videotaping of police officers doing their jobs — has been causing officers across the country to respond to problem situations with less aggression than they used to, and as a result, crime has been spiking.
This is not an evidence-based assertion, but my primary problem with it is its implicit assumption that the USA — oh exceptional nation! — is a Hobbesian hellhole. As Thomas Hobbes opined three and a half centuries ago: “The condition of man is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.” Evil and violence are lurking everywhere, prevented from leaping out at us only by armed counter-aggression on the part of police or the military (who are blessed and good, so please don’t trouble them with accountability).
Changing and strengthening people’s relationships with one another doesn’t enter into this way of thinking, but it’s the only real foundation on which to create peace.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.