The Immigration, Civil Rights, and Public Policy Division supports a full and thorough investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Justice of the incident which occurred at the Spring Valley Highschool of Columbia, South Carolina involving officer Ben Fields and a young female student. Most importantly, the Division supports the removal of all police officers from schools. Further, the Division encourages the eradication of policies and practices which cause the adverse disproportionate impact of the most vulnerable by promoting the systematic criminalization of children, abuse, civil rights violations, particularly children of color, black girls, and students with disabilities. The incident at Spring Valley High School encapsulates and is living proof of the compounded problems of police officers’ presence in grammar schools and high schools, and throughout society: incidents of excessive use of force, failure to utilize best practice de escalation tactics, and a driving component of the school-to-prison pipeline which contribute to mass incarceration. That the incident at Spring Valley High School took place at all is discouraging; in a place of learning to a child an unacceptable outrage that must not stand. To be clear: Wholly misplaced is any assignment of responsibility that does not fall squarely with Officer Fields as an actor of the State and the policies which at the outset establish and authorize the use of law enforcement in public schools.
The intersection of race and gender can not be ignored in addressing school discipline policies. The discriminatory effects of zero- tolerance school policies are both racialized and gendered. Columbia University law professor Kimberle Williams Crenshaw of the African-American Policy Forum has recently published a study entitled ‘Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Over Policed and Underprotected.’ The study reports that black girls and girls of color experience disproportionately high rates of suspension and expulsion. In fact, the disparity in punishment between black girls and white girls exceeds the disparity between black and white boys. Specifically, nationally, black girls are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls. Contrastly, black boys are three times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts. Importantly however, school suspensions and expulsions are related to a plethora of short and long-term consequences which continue far beyond the schoolhouse doors. For some students, zero-tolerance policies in schools lead directly to involvement in the criminal justice system. However school zero tolerance policies and ‘school push-out’ have economic effects, causing for many perpetual low-wage work, economic insecurity, and other hardships.
It stands to reason that a long troubled history of the administration of criminal justice with respect to poor, minority communities, and general society will also be troublesome in its extension to schools. School zero-tolerance disciplinary policies are progeny of the failed Tough On Crime policy phenomena of the 1990s. The policies were intended or have the effect of criminalizing the poor and people of color, confounding many of those communities to a criminal justice system plagued by the racial bias of the dangerousness, guilt, and inferiority of people of color and such have sustained mass incarceration in the United States. The Supreme Court of the United States has acknowledged the diminished capacity and immaturity of juveniles and that as such the Eighth Amendment requires differing treatment in the punishment of children. Yet students of color are often not recognized nor treated as children.
The assault at Spring Valley is yet another example of the necessity of the millennial post- civil rights era Black Lives Matter Movement. A movement which is primarily a generation’s direct response to the reality of systemic and structural racism: police brutality in communities and schools, mass incarceration, entrenched economic inequality, and the criminalization of immigrants. These attitudes and experiences are reflected in the Black Youth Project at the University of Chicago’s Center for Study of Race, Politics, and Culture ‘Black Millennials in America’ report. The first of its kind, the study reports that fifty-five percent of black millennial respondents indicate that they or someone that they know have been harassed or harmed by the police. Yet three-fourths believe that change can be accomplished through political processes. What must certainly change is the presence of police officers in schools. Discriminatory school discipline policies must be replaced with measures which are non-discriminatory in nature and effect, are lawful, and consistent with educational best practices.