S. Carolina case lesson: Police shouldn’t be doing school discipline

This week’s physical assault and removal of an African-American female student from a Columbia, South Carolina, classroom by a school police officer is the latest in a growing number of incidents involving aggressive tactics, unnecessary charging, and excessive use of force by school police against students of color.

Such incidents reflect the broader epidemic of police brutality against people of color. In Texas, a student who intervened to break up a fight at his high school was tased by a school police officer, causing him to fall to the ground and hit his head. That student suffered a severe brain injury and was in a medically induced coma for 52 days. A grand jury failed to indict the officer who assaulted him; even worse, the officer was promoted the next year.

In Florida, a high school sophomore was arrested and charged with two felonies after a science class experiment set off a small explosion, in which no one was injured. In 2013, a diabetic female high-schooler in Alabama who fell asleep in study hall was reportedly hit in the face by a school police officer.

And we all remember how just last month Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old Muslim student, was arrested by a school police officer for bringing a homemade clock to school, which school officials said resembled a bomb.

These troubling incidents and scores of others signal that training for law enforcement on interacting with youth — particularly youth of color — is imperative. They also tell us that school police should not be anywhere near routine discipline matters.

This week’s brutal interaction, captured in a video that’s gone viral, is not a “one-off” incident. Instead, it is part of a stream of systemic, excessive force by police officers committed against students of color in schools where they should be protected and nurtured.

As long as students of color are profiled, criminalized and pushed out of school, we will continue to be bombarded with reports of “disturbing” incidents. All of us will bear the brunt of the consequences of allowing these horrific interactions to continue. Students are affected by lost instruction time, poor educational outcomes and decreased employment opportunities, and families are shattered by more incarceration. Last year, in our report, “Unlocking Opportunity for African-American Girls,” it was noted that in the 2011-12 school year, 12% of all African-American female pre-K through 12 students were suspended from school, six times the rate of white girls and more than any other group of girls and several groups of boys — despite research showing that African-American children do not misbehave more frequently than their peers.

Data clearly show that the majority of incidents for which students of color are penalized are infractions that are very subjective, including “disruption,” “willful defiance,” or “disobedience” — where stereotyping and bias have the opportunity to influence decision-makers. But reforms are underway.

School districts like the Los Angeles Unified School District have led the way in reform by banning school suspensions for the “catch-all” category of “willful defiance.” Such discipline code modification to ensure clarity and uniformity is showing promise in reform circles.

The Syracuse School District has adopted a new discipline code and established training for staff in alternatives to punitive discipline that are designed to keep students in school. Many districts are also implementing training on the role of implicit bias — unconscious beliefs that we all hold about persons based on characteristics like race or age — and its influence on discipline decisions.

Yet many districts have failed to institute even basic reforms. Educators must receive training on classroom management early in teacher development. Perhaps the most disturbing sight in the video from the South Carolina classroom is that of a passive teacher standing by while a police officer attacks a student.

Teachers need ongoing support and services, not sanctions, to help maintain classroom order and promote student success. Parents should be involved in formulating and implementing school discipline codes and practices.

Finally, we must end the involvement of police in routine discipline matters. If police are present in schools, they must be trained on youth development, de-escalation techniques, implicit bias and cultural competency.

We must move toward the goal of removing police from schools. And we must stop conflating school discipline with school safety.

Studies find that a strong relationship between educators and students is the strongest indicator of school safety, not the presence of school police. Students must feel safe and supported in schools by authority figures whom they can trust. The horrific actions shown in the South Carolina video will hopefully shock the country into finally putting an end to our own tolerance for violence against youth in schools.

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