The recent violent arrest of an African-American girl at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, is prompting outrage on social media under the hashtag #AssaultAtSpringValley, and activists say the incident is just one piece of the larger problems of institutionalized racism and the school-to-prison pipeline.
Girls of color, especially black girls, “face much harsher school discipline than their white peers but are excluded from current efforts to address the school-to-prison pipeline,” according to “Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected,” a recent study from Columbia Law School and the African American Policy Forum.
The study, which cites the most recent data from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), found that, on average, black girls enrolled in New York City and Boston schools are disciplined 10.5 times more than their white counterparts. The rate is even greater than that of black boys, who are disciplined an average of seven times more than white boys, according to the study.
Additionally, black girls are expelled and suspended at higher rates than white girls in New York City and Boston, according to the DOE data cited in the study. In New York City, black girls are expelled 53 times more and suspended 10 times more than their white counterparts, the study found, and in Boston, black girls are expelled 10 times more and suspended 12 times more than white girls.
The study’s lead author, Kimberlé Crenshaw, told ABC News today that the incident in South Carolina is “precisely the example of the broader, systemic problem with having turned our educational system into a school-to-prison pipeline, especially for students of color.”
“School is now a place where punishment and discipline are prioritized over serving students and educating them,” said Crenshaw, a professor of law at Columbia University who specializes in issues of race and gender. “Any moment where a student falls outside scripted behavior becomes an opportunity for law enforcement to come in, criminalizing ordinary things people do every day.”
“This girl not listening to the teacher, though sitting peacefully in her chair, has become justification for law enforcement application of severe coercion and force that led to severe bodily injury,” Crenshaw said.
After video of the incident surfaced this week showing school resource officer Ben Fields violently dragging the girl out of the classroom, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott announced on Wednesday that Fields was fired.
Though an internal investigation determined Fields was not wrong to try and remove the student from the classroom, after being asked to do so from the teacher and a school administrator, the problem was in how he attempted to do that, Lott said.
However, Fields’ lawyer Scott Hayes said in a statement that he believes Fields’ “actions were justified and lawful throughout the circumstances of which he was confronted during this incident,” and that “Fields’ actions were carried out professionally and that he was performing his job duties within the legal threshold.”
But Crenshaw said she believes the root of the problem is the actual legal system that allows people like Fields and Hayes to believe this is OK.
“I think it’s useful to recall that a lot of these statutes like ‘disrupting the classroom’ or ‘disturbing the peace’ have long been historically used to oppress and criminalize black people” such as in the case of “folks who did sit-in demonstrations during the Civil Rightsmovement,” Crenshaw said. “It’s precisely this use of state coercion that was used to maintain racial and colonial relations.”
The incident in the South Carolina is also an example of the double-discrimination of “institutionalized, systemic racism and gender bias in America” that black girls face, according to Crenshaw.
“Black girls are punished, many times violently so, for questioning and challenging authority, which is something that is often celebrated and encouraged as a sign of intelligence and critical thinking in white boys,” she said. “If a parent did to their own kids at home what school resource officer Ben Fields was seen doing on video, “that kind of behavior would land someone in prison or jail for abuse. What makes this perfectly acceptable to some is the pre-existing belief that black children deserve it.”
Crenshaw said she believes that “police officers should be taken out of schools” and that “teachers need to be trained to handle a variety of situations, not just rely on police officers as a crutch.”
“Trouble dealing with a girl looking at her cell phone or not listening is not an appropriate expenditure of a public safety resource,” she said. “We have to move back to the idea that education isn’t about teaching people to bow to rigid rules. That’s not what democracy is about.”