A sheriff's deputy in South Carolina was fired after he grabbed and threw a black student during a brutal arrest in a Spring Valley High School classroom, Richard County Sheriff Leon Lott announced on Wednesday.
Multiple videos taken by students at the school in Columbia, South Carolina, show the in-school arrest going terribly wrong. Ben Fields, the school resource officer, tells a female student to get up. When she disobeys, he grabs her by the neck and tries to pick her up — at which point she seems to try to hit him. The officer flips over the student and her desk, and then tosses her to the other side of the room. He then finishes the arrest while she lies on the floor.
Again, this is all happening in a public school in America. And to the students, it doesn't even seem surprising — those visible in the videos calmly watch the situation unfold or turn away.
School officials told local news station WISTV that the officer was trying to arrest the student after she allegedly disturbed classes, and that they were "deeply concerned" about the forceful arrest. There are several ongoing investigations, including a federal civil rights probe, into the incident.
The incident has triggered yet more outrage on social media about police brutality against black people. But beyond racial disparities in police use of force, the incident reveals the kind of encounters that are more likely to happen as schools increasingly rely on police officers for discipline.
The school-to-prison pipeline disproportionately hurts black students
When lawmakers began enacting tough-on-crime policies in the 1970s and '80s, some of the concepts trickled down to schools, which began outsourcing discipline to police through school resource officers and referrals to the juvenile justice system. The result has been a school-to-prison pipeline that acts as many kids' first exposure to the criminal justice system — and it can lead to more interactions with the justice system later on, because the lost school time and bad marks on their records can make it much more difficult to get ahead.
There's a lot of research and data that shows black kids are much more likely to be affected by schools' punitive disciplinary policies:
- Even after controlling for poverty, a report from the Justice Policy Institute found schools with school resource officers have nearly five times the rate of arrests for disorderly conduct as schools without school resource officers, even though the prevalence of school resource officers in schools has little relationship to reported crime rates.
- A study published in Sociology of Education analyzed a data set of more than 60,000 schools in more than 6,000 districts. It found schools with relatively larger minority and poor populations are more likely to implement criminalized disciplinary policies — such as suspensions, expulsions, police referrals, and arrests — and less likely to medicalize students by, for instance, connecting them to psychological or behavioral care.
- Boys with imprisoned fathers are much less likely to possess the behavioral skills needed to succeed in school by the age of 5, a study published in Sociological Science found. Black children, who are more likely to have imprisoned black fathers, are therefore more likely to be set on a bad course before they start kindergarten.
- Black students with disabilities are almost three times as likely to experience out-of-school suspension or expulsion as their white counterparts, and twice as likely to experience in-school suspension or expulsion, according to a report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
- Although black boys face higher rates of school discipline than anyone else, a report from the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies found black girls are six times as likely to be suspended compared to white girls, while black boys are three times as likely to be suspended compared to white boys.
- Federal investigations have found that black students are punished more harshly than white students in schools even when black and white students engage in identical behavior.
So schools aren't just more likely to criminalize their students nowadays; they're more likely to criminalize their black students in particular. Some socioeconomic issues — black kids are more likely to be poor, and poorer schools tend to be more punitive — play a role. But subconscious racial biases play a significant role, as well.
Other research shows the public holds subconscious biases against black people
As part of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, researchers studied 176 mostly white, male police officers, and tested them to see if they held an unconscious "dehumanization bias" against black people by having them match photos of people with photos of big cats or apes. Researchers found that officers commonly dehumanized black people, and those who did were most likely to be the ones who had a record of using force on black children in custody.
In the same study, researchers interviewed 264 mostly white, female college students and found that they tended to perceive black children ages 10 and older as "significantly less innocent" than their white counterparts.
"Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection," Phillip Goff, a UCLA researcher and author of the study, said in a statement. "Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent."
Other research suggests there can be superhumanization bias at work, as well, with white people more likely to associate paranormal or magical powers with black people than with other white people. And the more they associate magical powers with black people, the less likely they are to believe black people feel pain.
Dehumanization and subconscious racial biases are worrying because they may contribute to greater use of force by police. Studies show, for example, that officers are quicker to shoot black suspects in video game simulations. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted the research, said it's possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. "In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training," he said, "we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them."
It's this type of racial bias that has been at the center of debates over racial disparities in police use of force over the past year. When cops used force on Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City, the question for many critics of police was how subconscious biases factored into the deadly encounters. For instance, Darren Wilson, the former Ferguson police officer who shot and killed Brown, described the black 18-year-old to a grand jury as a demon-like, dead-eyed giant who charged at him through a hail of gunfire — a callback to old racist tropes of "giant negroes" attacking police and innocent people.
As a result, experts already agree these subconscious biases help explain at least some of the racial disparities in the criminal justice system. And that means black students are far more likely to face the kind of brutality on display at Spring Valley High School because of the outsize police presence in their schools.