At a high school in South Carolina on Oct. 26, an insubordinate student was thrown out of her desk and dragged across the floor by a policeman. It’s far from the worst overreach of force demonstrated recently, but it’s deeply emblematic of America’s police problem. The so-called “school resource officer” was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation. Unless that investigation determines the girl had a bomb around her waist, the violence was completely uncalled for.
Disturbing video of the incident, which was widely shared on social media, certainly offers nothing to condone the officer’s actions. According to a local report, the girl was being disruptive in class and didn’t cooperate when her teacher and an administrator asked her to leave. So the officer handled the situation the only way increasing numbers of cops seem to know how – by becoming physically violent.
The student is without question the victim of assault, and a pretty dramatic one. As she is thrown to the floor, her desk goes with her, meaning she fell without much freedom of motion to catch herself. The officer clearly lost his temper and control. Even the very worst-case scenario, in which the student was loud, disruptive, disrespectful, and refused to leave, comes nowhere near justifying the violence.
Disruptions can be handled any number of nonviolent ways. We don’t know what all was attempted, but officials were trying to get the student to leave. Perhaps they could have postponed the trigonometry lesson for a few minutes and tried a little compassion. Even allowing the student to be disruptive would have been preferable to the trauma of physical assault. Summoning an attack dog to forcefully remove a student is some way of helping her realize her potential.
Saddest of all, her classmates sit and watch without making much noise. The kid sitting next to her isn’t even moved to uncross his arms as he watches her get manhandled, seemingly desensitized or perhaps fearful he could be next. This is what police presence in schools teaches kids: If they don’t do what the powers that be say, they’ll get the crap kicked out of them. That’s the way it is so just shut up and toe the line.
Perhaps the most shocking demonstration of this is another recent incident where police at a high school in Rhode Island pepper sprayed a group of teenagers who were protesting, of all things, police brutality in schools. Here’s a group of high school students, putting into practice what they learned about the first amendment, finding out first-hand that it’s all theoretical and there really are no checks on power.
And these are far from the only instances of runaway police authority. A schoolyard fight in Georgia was broken up not by teachers intervening and pulling the students apart, but by an officer using his taser as a first resort. A 14-year-old autistic boy with the mentality of a child half his age was struck by a school resource officer in Oklahoma while on the phone with his mother. And on it goes, with students being abused or arrested for minor infractions like burping or doodling on a desk.
We shouldn’t shrug these stories off by saying the students received no lasting harm or were acting up and needed discipline. A generation of kids are living not under threat of the teacher’s paddle and bad grades but the billy club and a criminal record. Some critics allege the increasing presence of police in schools facilitates a school-to-prison pipeline as police “become more involved in the basic discipline of children, stepping in where teachers previously would have handled low-level misbehavior.”
Authority doesn’t exercise nuance or subtlety because it doesn’t have to. It expects and is in many cases legally guaranteed a level of obedience from the population. In the absence of that obedience, its patience tires and violence quickly becomes an option. For many, the encounter is fatal. As important as their safety is, we fail our children in the most depressing and profound way by subjecting them to the abuses of law enforcement at younger and younger ages.