School-to-prison pipeline, the ugly reality behind Spring Valley school arrest

The video couldn't have been more shocking. A South Carolina sheriff's deputy slamming an African-American high school student out of a desk and onto the floor, and throwing her across a classroom.

Captured by a classmate's cell phone and broadcast this week on television screens throughout the country, the violence of the video cut to the deepest level of societal fabric. Schools, after all, are where we build the future, where young people go to discover who they are, and figure out where they fit in the world.

So what was a cop doing in a public school classroom, mauling a student?

As we learned, deputy Ben Fields -- who was fired yesterday by the Richland County sheriff's office -- was working as a school resource officer, or SRO, a cop whose beat was the school itself. The student had been caught looking at her phone and refused to cooperate with her teacher. Fields was called in for backup, and took control with brutal force.

As an SRO, Fields served as one of tens of thousands of other law enforcement officers working in public schools in America today. Unsurprisingly, for many disadvantaged students, particularly those of color, the presence of SROs is said to be oppressive.

Activists and lawyers say that behind the shocking images portrayed in the South Carolina cell phone video lies a nationwide problem known as the school-to-prison pipeline. The concept and reality undergirding this term suggests that public education has become a virtual gateway to incarceration for "at-risk" youths.

The ACLU, on its website, calls the school-to-prison pipeline "a disturbing national trend wherein children are funneled out of public schools and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many of these children have learning disabilities or histories of poverty, abuse, or neglect, and would benefit from additional educational and counseling services. Instead, they are isolated, punished, and pushed out."

Key facets, as per the ACLU's definition, include failing public schools, where the pipeline "begins," with "overcrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers, and insufficient funding for 'extras' such as counselors, special education services, and even textbooks;" policies like zero tolerance which "automatically impose severe punishment regardless of circumstances;" disciplinary alternative schools, which are "growing in number across the country … sometimes run by private, for-profit companies … [and] immune from educational accountability standards;" involvement with courts, where students "are often denied procedural protections. … In one state, up to 80% of court-involved children do not have lawyers;" and juvenile detention centers, where students "who commit minor offenses may end up … if they violate boilerplate probation conditions prohibiting them from activities like missing school or disobeying teachers."

Another aspect is the presence of police in school hallways: "Many under-resourced schools become pipeline gateways by placing increased reliance on police rather than teachers and administrators to maintain discipline. Growing numbers of districts employ school resource officers to patrol school hallways, often with little or no training in working with youth. As a result, children are far more likely to be subject to school-based arrests -- the majority of which are for non-violent offenses, such as disruptive behavior -- than they were a generation ago. The rise in school-based arrests, the quickest route from the classroom to the jailhouse, most directly exemplifies the criminalization of school children."

According to the U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collection, 260,000 public school students were referred to law enforcement in the 2011-2012 school year, and 92,000 students were subject to school-related arrests.

The cops-in-school phenomenon began taking shape some 20 years ago, in the wake of school shootings like Columbine, says a 2013 Congressional Research Service report on the subject of SROs.

The report states that "criminal justice and education officials sought to expand school safety efforts -- which included assigning law enforcement officers to patrol schools -- in the wake of a series of high-profile school shootings in the 1990s. Expanding the presence of SROs in schools was also partly a response to rising juvenile crime rates during the 1980s and early 1990s."

But somewhere along the line, said Ebony Howard of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), "we got to the point in schools where the kids are mostly of color where it turned to policing the students and not protecting them from outsiders."

"For some kids, kids of color," she told NCR, "adolescence has become criminalized."

As managing attorney for SPLC's Alabama office, Howard has been working on the issue of the school-to-prison-pipeline since 2010, representing public school students in Birmingham, Ala., who were pepper sprayed by SROs.

In September, a U.S. District Court largely ruled in the plaintiffs' favor. U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon ordered new training and procedures for the use of pepper spray for Birmingham school resource officers. He ruled the use of pepper spray by SROs on students for non-violent infractions to be unconstitutional.

In collecting evidence for the case, the SPLC estimated that, from 2006 to 2011, pepper spray had been used 110 times with roughly 300 sprayed in the Birmingham city school district, which is "99 percent African-American," according to Howard.

While only forming 25 percent of the greater county student population, Birmingham city high schools accounted for 85 percent of school-based arrests going to county family courts in 2008, "and 97 percent of those arrests were for what people call petty misdemeanors, but actually they just translate into misconduct. It's arrests for things that can be characterized as crimes, but historically we just call them misconduct. Like fighting in school, or cursing, or yelling, or refusing to leave a classroom," Howard said.

Many of the pepper spray incidents were anything but warranted.

"A student who had his cell phone taken away from him, yelled 'Give me back my [expletive] cell phone,' and he was sprayed with mace," she said. "One of our clients, she was pregnant, and she was walking from one class to another class, when another student, a boy, starts following her and called her some really foul names, and as she was walking she started to cry, and the boy followed her, and his friends followed her, and eventually she started to cry hysterically, and when the officer walked up to the situation, and all the students left, and he put the girl in handcuffs because she wouldn't stop crying. And then when she continued to cry, he sprayed her in the face with mace."

Howard tried to make sense of the larger situation:

"We want to have public education in this country not only to teach kids to be academics, but also to teach them how to become citizens. To teach them how to manage conflict. We understand that by virtue of being teenagers, by virtue of being adolescents, they're going to make mistakes and they're going to push boundaries. And when they do, it's our responsibility to hold them accountable for their actions."

But in no way does that mean we should "criminalize misconduct," and "push [students] into the criminal justice system," she said.

Muhiyidin d'Baha, an organizer with Black Lives Matter Charleston, told NCR that the incident with SRO officer Ben Fields shocked him because, "the video shows a lot of complacency on the part of the administration, the teachers, and the rest of the students in the room."

"That was very concerning to me," said d'Baha, a millennial who experienced school-based arrests in the sixth and eighth grades, "that this abuse of power has become so normalized, incredible normalized, that nobody even thought it was wrong, or that everybody was too intimidated to interrupt the officer."

He called the school-to-prison pipeline "a story that myself and millions of other people have lived."

"It's a story of growing up in, working in, trying to make it in an institution that isn't culturally competent," he said, "and that doesn't really value who and what I am, and is diligently working to discipline my being -- the way I talk, where I go, how I act -- disciplining my body, and pushing me into a space of feeling like I'm institutionalized."

"[I saw] the difference between my friends who resisted the institutionalization and people like myself who were able to assimilate into it," he said. "Seeing how people who didn't conform their behavior to the expectations of the classroom, how they were criminalized … they [got] rid of us, they kicked us out, and a lot of us ended up getting in trouble with the law."

"And so we don't belong," he said. "And unfortunately what we do feel belonging to and connection to is this sense of, 'I'm an outsider. I am somebody who doesn't fit into this [world].' "

[Vinnie Rotondaro is NCR national correspondent. His email address is]

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