Americans were shocked this past week when a video of a South Carolina policeman went viral.
He was seen grabbing a young girl from behind, pulling her out of her desk, throwing her down and dragging her across the floor to remove her from the classroom for her “disrepectful” behavior — she was using her cellphone and not responding to the officer’s demands.
This was all recorded by another student on her cellphone, and she, too, was arrested with bail set at $1,000. The first teen was hospitalized, now has a cast on her arm and a “rug burn” on her forehead, though it is not clear in the video that the floor was carpeted.
Multiple playings of this video online and on news reports clearly show the policeman, a large, fit, mature man wearing a gun, grabbing the girl and flinging her down. The policeman has since been fired and barred from entering any district schools.
Would he have been fired if the incident had not been on the Internet? It is claimed the girl struck the officer. Is that justification for his over-the-top response?
Since when can students be bodily harmed, and why couldn’t the teacher handle this incident?
How often does this happen and not get recorded?
It is clear that cellphone videos are a game-changer in schools (and with policing in general), but the basic situation is still one that needs to be seriously questioned.
Why are there cops in schools in the first place?
This same officer, Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields, was sued in 2007 for false arrest, excessive force and violation of free speech rights. He is also on trial this coming January for various civil rights violations of a student, yet this officer was still working in the high school and an elementary school in the district. Why?
There are about 17,000 school safety officers on duty nationwide. Since the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado, more than $1 billion from the Justice and Education departments has been spent on school officers, and now the trend is expanding to elementary schools.
In Texas, a policeman tased a 17-year-old who was so injured he was put in a medically induced coma for 52 days. Another officer handcuffed 8- and 9-year-old disabled children for misbehavior. The kicker? They were so small the handcuffs had to be put on their upper arms to restrain them. Even more outrageous, these children were almost all minorities, poor, and in low-income districts. For the most part, officers are cleared of wrongdoing and lawsuits are settled out of court.
New York program
The state of New York has had a School Safety Agent program since George Pataki’s administration, but the policing of public schools is most evident in New York City. The number of SSAs in the city in the 2008-09 school year (5,055 plus 191 armed officers) was the fifth largest police force in the nation, larger than Washington, D.C., Detroit, Boston or Las Vegas. That same year, there were 3,152 guidance counselors in the same schools.
The American Civil Liberties Union is concerned about the high level of suspensions and what it calls “the school-to-prison pipeline.” This is a valid criticism.
Sharon Springs Central School had a School Safety Officer from 2002 to 2010, until the state grants dried up. The officer was a local resident, a graduate of SSCS, had children in the school, and was known by everybody. State Trooper Alexander Johnstone was in the school a half-day and worked with the staff and students to handle sensitive situations, discuss law, drugs, road and campus safety, and community-school cooperation for the welfare of the students. This was an ideal match, and the only complaints were from some who didn’t like the idea of his wearing a gun while on duty.
His visibility alone probably deterred any incidents, but the program’s cost could have paid for educationally qualified counselors and staff had the money been continued — it was almost equal to the superintendent’s salary.
The bottom line
So what is the answer? Superintendent/Principal Patterson Green says the bottom line is “know the kids, know how to deal with problems, how to defuse and de-escalate problems.”
Sharon Springs has the state’s second highest percentage of students living below the poverty line (58 percent of our kids are on free or reduced lunch). But that isn’t the only reason for misbehavior.
To his credit, Green sees other solutions.
Maybe we have better places for our tax dollars than cops in the classroom.
Karen Cookson lives in Sharon Springs and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette Opinion pages.