The video is shocking. A young woman—a student at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina—is sitting at her desk. A police officer stands over her. He asks her to leave, and she refuses. Suddenly, he tosses her back in her desk, picks her up, and drags her to the front of the classroom, where he arrests her.
Her classmates are watching, and they give vital context. “She really hadn’t done anything wrong,” said one student, Tony Robinson Jr., who gave his account to a local news station. The girl was working on her laptop and took out her phone. The teacher asked for the phone, and she refused. “She said that she had took her phone out, but it was only for a quick second,” said Robinson. The teacher called in an administrator, who asked the young woman to leave. She wouldn’t. In turn, the administrator called the school’s “resource officer,” Ben Fields. It’s at this point that students start recording, and we see what happens next. After arresting the young woman, Fields threatens another student with the same.
Fields, a sheriff’s deputy, has a troubled history in law enforcement. “In 2007,” reports the New York Times, “Carlos Martin and his wife, Tashiana Martin, sued Officer Fields, Sheriff Lott, and another deputy, Robert Clark, for violating their civil rights during a routine investigation of a noise complaint.” In the encounter, says the complaint, Fields slammed Carlos Martin to the ground, handcuffed him, kicked him, and emptied a can of pepper spray into his face. He also confiscated a cellphone that Tashiana Martin had used to record the event, handcuffed her, and threw her to the ground as well. The lawsuit went forward, but a jury eventually ruled in favor of the deputy.
Fields was sued again in 2013 by a former student at Spring Valley who had been expelled for “unlawful assembly of gang activity and assault and battery.” The lawsuit, notes the Times, says that Fields “unfairly and recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity.”
It’s easy to treat all of this as isolated behavior from an overly aggressive police officer and a teacher who couldn’t manage his classroom without outside authority. But the fact is that this incident—where police force, normally reserved for criminal offenders, was used to discipline a student—is incredibly common.
Since 1995, juvenile incarceration has dropped by more than 40 percent. In the same time frame, however, out-of-school suspensions have increased 10 percent, doubling the total from 1970. As reporters Dara Lind and Libby Nelson explain for Vox, this stems from several trends.
The crime waves of the 1980s and early 1990s sparked deep concern in schools across the country. In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the Gun-Free Schools Act, which mandated specific penalties for carrying weapons in schools. Zero tolerance was national policy, and school districts devised their own codes meant to stop minor incidents before they blossomed into major ones, a public school analogue to the “broken windows” policies in places like New York City. What’s more, crime fears—as well as the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado—led to more police officers in schools as well: The number of “school resource officers” increased 38 percent to more than 13,000 in 2007, up from 9,446 in 1997.
In practice, however, zero-tolerance policies became grounds for suspending students over relatively minor offenses, like disrupting and skipping class, or shooting spit balls. And school resource officers became the first option instead of a last resort, as teachers and administrators increasingly used law enforcement to handle routine discipline. In public school districts around the country, arrests have increased with the presence of school resource officers, even as juvenile crime rates have decreased. Even adjusting for poverty—which tends to correlate with safety—the total arrest rate in schools with officers was almost three times the rate for schools without them. “About 92,000 students were arrested in school during the 2011–2012 school year,” notes Vox. “And most of those were low-level violations.”
As is often true, from the war on drugs to mass incarceration, the brunt of this punitive policy falls hardest on black and Latino Americans. From 1972 to 2010, the school suspension rate for whites in middle and high school climbed from 6 percent to 7.1 percent. For Latinos it climbed from 6.1 to 12 percent. For blacks it more than doubled from 11.8 percent to 24.3 percent.
In 2007, 70 percent of in-school arrests were of black and Latino students. Overall, according to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than white students, 16 percent versus 5 percent. This is true for all ages: “Black children,” notes the DOE, “represent 18 percent of preschool enrollment, but 48 percent of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension.” White students, by contrast, “represent 43 percent of preschool enrollment but 26 percent of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension.” Students of color with disabilities are also more likely to be restrained or suspended: Black students constitute 21 percent of all students with disabilities, but 44 percent of those subject to mechanical restraints.
In some states, suspension rates are almost unbelievable. In the 2011–2012 school year, Missouri suspended 14.4 percent of its black elementary students, compared with just 1.8 percent of its white students. Florida suspended 5.1 percent of its elementary students and 19 percent of its middle and high school students. And Wisconsin suspended a mind-blowing 34 percent of all enrolled black students in a single year.
It should be said that, echoing the incident at Spring Valley High School, black girls—and dark-skinned black girls in particular—are disproportionately punished in schools. “Black girls in public elementary and secondary schools nationwide were suspended at a rate of 12 percent, compared with a rate of just 2 percent for white girls, and more than girls of any other race or ethnicity,” writes the New York Times, adding that “black girls with the darkest skin tones were three times more likely to be suspended than black girls with the lightest skin.”
You might look at this and wonder if it’s behavior. Do black and Latino students act worse than white ones? Do black girls behave worse than white ones? The answer is no. “Despite higher rates of school suspensions for black, latino, and Native American students, there appear to be few racial differences in the offenses most likely to lead to zero tolerance policy violations,” write researchers at Indiana University. Instead, these students are referred for less serious and more subjective offenses.
In general, notes the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University, “Research suggests that when given an opportunity to choose among several disciplinary options for a relatively minor offense, teachers and school administrators often choose more severe punishment for black students than for white students for the same offense.” In fact, according to one study of Texas schools, 97 percent of suspensions were the choice of administrators, as only 3 percent of students had broken rules that required such punishment. But the weight of those discretionary suspensions fell on black students—they were 31 percent more likely to be suspended, even controlling for a host of other variables.
At all ages, black students are perceived as more dangerous and unruly. And to that point, at least one analysis shows that teachers hold lower expectations of black and Latino children compared with their white peers. When mixed with zero-tolerance discipline and school police officers, you have a recipe for wide disparities in treatment. A 2011 study of North Carolina schools from the National Education Policy Center found that 32 percent of black students were suspended for first-time offense of cellphone use at school, compared with just 15 percent of white students. For a first-time offense of public display of affection, almost 43 percent of accused black students were suspended, compared with about 15 percent of white students.
This dovetails with similar research in other states. In schools as in life, black Americans are punished worse for the same offenses as their white peers. And the consequences are terrible: Suspended students are more likely to drop out of school, and suspensions increase the odds of arrest and juvenile detention.
Here’s the truth: What happened at Spring Valley High wasn’t an exception or a scandal. It’s how things work for black students. And if you’re feeling cynical, it’s how they’re supposed to work, with segregated or predominantly black schools feeding the maw of our nearly insatiable prison system.