Recently I sat in the main office of a racially-diverse middle school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, waiting to speak with a guidance counselor. I arrived early in the morning, and the school resource office (SRO) assigned to the school from the local police department was one of the few people already there. He amiably interacted with staff, teachers, and students, and he gave me a big smile when he walked past. By all accounts, he couldn’t be a nicer guy. Yet, he is a white man in a uniform, armed with a gun, in a school populated by eleven, twelve and thirteen-year-olds. He can make arrests, and he can refer students for criminal prosecution in juvenile delinquency court. In fact, there are armed police officers who work as SROs in all the public middle and high schools in the district in which I live.
Not long ago, I read about the assault of a 16-year-old African-American student named Shakara by SRO Ben Fields, a white man, at Spring Valley High School in Richland County, South Carolina. I read that Shakara was allegedly being “disruptive” by failing to put away her cell phone during math class and then refusing to leave the classroom because she felt the punishment was unfair. I read that SRO Fields is known as “Officer Slam” because of his brutal treatment of Spring Valley High students. I read that Shakara was charged criminally with the misdemeanor charge of “disturbing schools,” which carries a maximum of ninety days in jail and a $1000 fine. And I read that an 18-year-old classmate, Niya Kenny, was charged as an adult with the same offense for speaking up in support of Shakara during the assault.
There are at least seven other states with “disturbing schools” laws on the books. In North Carolina, for instance, the analogous criminal offense to the one facing Shakara and Niya Kenny is disorderly conduct by disrupting students (NCGS 14-288.4(a)(6)). Yet, the statutory language in North Carolina differs from that of its southern neighbor. Under the NC statute, the state must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person intentionally causes a public disturbance by disrupting, disturbing, or interfering with the teaching of students at an educational institution or by engaging in conduct that disturbs the peace, order, or discipline at an educational institution or on the adjacent grounds.
North Carolina cases in which the evidence was found to be insufficient to support an adjudication of juvenile delinquency for the offense include In re S.M., 190 NC App. 579 (2008), in which a female high school student laughed and ran away with a friend after an administrator asked her to stop in the school hallway; she was then chased by an SRO for 10-15 seconds before he arrested her. The NC Appeals Court found that this was an instance of “ordinary misbehavior or rule-breaking,” which did not rise to the level of criminal activity. In challenging these offenses in North Carolina courts, the defense typically focuses on the element that requires proof of intentional behavior that caused an actual public disturbance, which distinguishes ordinary misbehavior like that of Shakara’s from true instances of disturbing the peace within a school.
In contrast, the South Carolina “disturbing schools” statute is very broad, as it not only criminalizes the willful or unnecessary interference or disturbance of students or teachers but also criminalizes mere loitering on school premises and/or “act[ing] in an obnoxious manner thereon.” Candidly, I can think of dozens of examples of typical adolescent behavior on school grounds that could be deemed “obnoxious” and conceivably fall within the language of this statute. Yet, in 2006 when the statute was challenged as overbroad and vague in violation of the First Amendment, the South Carolina Supreme Court affirmedthe lower court’s decision that it was not unconstitutionally overbroad. The decision, however, was quite fact-intensive, involving a boy who had been yelling and cursing in a classroom for over two hours and then took a swing at his teacher as he was escorted down the hall, so there is likely room to bring another appeal based on different facts.
As for the cell phone video of the incident at Spring Valley High, I’ve seen similar videos in the course of representing hundreds of children charged with criminal offenses resulting from school-based “incidents” during my years teaching in the Youth Justice Clinic at UNC Law School. Even so, I wasn’t prepared for this one. The violent and vicious way in which SRO Fields slammed Shakara, still sitting in her desk, onto the classroom floor and then pulled her across the room before restraining her on the ground was horrifying. I’d be outraged to see an animal treated that way, let alone a teenager.
Yet, the SRO’s attack on Shakara is a quintessential example of the school-to-prison pipeline in action, as it illustrates perfectly what the statistics already tell us – that black students are suspended and expelled from schools three times more often than their white peers, and that for black girls, the rate is twice that amount. In fact, in South Carolina black students comprise 60% of those who are suspended from school but only 36% of the state’s student population. A federal civil rights investigation into the incident has been initiated by the Columbia FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina.
After more than a decade of juvenile justice advocacy, I’ve concluded that police officers have no legitimate role in our schools. The reality is that SROs are not found in most private, charter, or parochial schools, yet these educational settings manage to maintain safe learning environments for their students. SROs are not typically trained in adolescent development, in diffusing tense situations, in building rapport with students, in advising students, or in mediation, and if these are in fact the skills and qualities that are needed in a particular school setting, qualified school counselors should be hired rather than uniformed and armed police officers. Of course, if an urgent situation requires law enforcement, school administrators—like all citizens—can dial 911 or request assistance from the local police department.
Unfortunately, the school-to-prison pipeline is not unique to South Carolina or to North Carolina or to only a handful of states. There are more than 17,000 police officers assigned to schools across the United States. Data confirms that the presence of uniformed and armed law enforcement in schools has a criminogenic effect. In other words, placing armed police in schools actually increases the physical dangers to youth. Therefore, as long as SROs are in school buildings and classrooms, students—particularly youth of color—are as vulnerable as Shakara, not only to prosecution for typical adolescent misbehavior but to physical assault.
*A version of this essay first appeared at the Human Rights at Home blog.*