Misbehaving Children Are Criminals Only When We Choose to Criminalize Them

The video of the South Carolina high-school student being brutalized by an officer was terrifying. But it wasn't isolated.  

The internet exploded this week when a student from a South Carolina high school posted a video online showing a school resource officer named Ben Fields clobbering a 16-year-old girl. The officer, who is white, brutally slammed the student to the ground, dragging her across the classroom, and eventually arresting her. The charge? “Disrupting” school. By all accounts the girl, who is black, posed no threat to anyone’s safety; she was clearly not armed, and from the brief video footage, it appears she sat calmly and quietly until the moment the officer began to put her in a chokehold. Her crime, the reason the officer was called into the classroom in the first place, was literally for acting up in class.

Perhaps even more surreal was the arrest of her classmate, 18-year-old Niya Kenny, on the same charge. Kenny, who also took a video of Field’s assault, stood up and began recording while — by her own account — she began crying, screaming, and praying. Again, no threats of danger to herself or others, just refusal to comply with an order to turn off her camera, earned her arrest, jail, and possible conviction simply for disobeying a teacher.

Watching the video and the ensuing eruption on social media, I couldn’t help thinking back on the one time I was ever in any real trouble at school. I was in eighth grade and got into a schoolyard scrap with a classmate named Jaquin. He and I were running buddies, played ball together every recess, sat next to each other in most of our classes. One week we’d been getting on each other’s nerves something terrible. I can’t remember what sparked it, but after all the hormone-fueled pseudo-macho shit had been talked, it was mutually decided that one of us was going to have to catch an ass-whupping before we left school that day. (For the record, I threw the first punch, he threw the last 20.)

Our Vice-Principal of Discipline and Attendance was a mountain of a man named Ron Lewis. Originally from Hawaii, he was an old-school disciplinarian who resembled a giant version of Jesse Jackson with a coconut-scented S-curl. He had this booming, Barry White-type voice, the kind that could even without a mic stop an auditorium full of chatty tweens cold. To 12-year-olds that man was absolutely terrifying. Jaquin and I would have both gladly taken detention for the rest of our natural lives if it meant not having to sit in his office and catch his wrath.

But when Vice-Principal Lewis brought us in and shut the door, there was no anger, no ass-chewing, and certainly no handcuffs. He sat us down and let us know how disappointed he was, and how there were going to be consequences for our actions. Then he made it a point to tell us that he knew what fine young men we were and how much potential we had. He warned us that as black kids from a relatively poor neighborhood there were no shortage of people, inside and outside of the community, who were betting on us becoming statistics.

And to our shock and amazement, tears welled up in his eyes as he told us that he loved us, he cared about us, and he damn sure wasn’t going to let either one of us become fodder for the system on his watch. Before we left, he made us look each other in the eye, shake hands, and promise that we would end the day as friends. And that was that. No cops, no cuffs, no choke-holds. Just an educator giving a couple of kids pep-talk, some words of encouragement, and holding them to a promise.

That memory makes it all the harder to watch a full-grown officer (YouTube videos show Fields is an amateur powerlifter) throwing a 16-year-old girl around a classroom. It’s also hard to hear a mother had to pay a $1,000 bond to bail her daughter out of jail because she had the courage to stand up for a friend. But it’s harder yet to reconcile that in our zero-tolerance society, we’ve literally criminalized children misbehaving in school.

As a parent, the thought of threats like school shootings and gang violence are absolutely terrifying. And while I don’t consider myself a disciplinarian, I’d be the first to agree that part of educating children is establishing rules and the expectation that those rules have to be followed. Sometimes that learning process has to include some discipline for breaking those rules. Fair enough.

And, yes, America is setting limits to this zero-tolerance madness. Officer Fields has since been fired, and the FBI and U.S. attorney’s office have already opened up investigations to decide whether criminal and/or hate crime chargers should be filed. Though acknowledging the officer’s actions were uncalled for, Field’s boss Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott still made sure to deflect charges of racism by explaining Field’s romantic relationship with an African-American woman (protip: If you think having sex with someone from a different race absolves you from racism you’ve completely missed the past 400 years of American history, but that’s a conversation for another time).

But Fields’ actions point to a wider culture. Somewhere along the line, we decided that children committing nonviolent infractions should be punished not by referral, detention, or suspension, but with criminal charges for which they can be arrested, taken to jail, and in many cases prosecuted as adults. The violence recorded in the Spring Valley High School classroom was gut-wrenching, but the wider problem is systematic and it is epidemic.

The wave of school-to-prison-pipeline oriented punishment disproportionately affects children along racial lines: 70 percent of all “in-school” arrests involve students of color). Study after study show that white adults, especially adults in positions of power, see black children as older and less innocent than their white counterparts. I can’t say whether Ben Fields is a racist, but I can tell you it’s clear that while he was dragging that young student around the classroom in way most people wouldn’t handle a stray dog, he certainly didn’t see her as the child she is.

In states like South Carolina, North Carolina, Arizona, Florida, and Wisconsin, variations of “disrupting school” are Class C misdemeanors. Over the past decade, kids across the country have been dragged out of their classrooms in handcuffs — not for shooting up lunchrooms, harming classmates, or even damaging school property, but just making the sort of silly (albeit at times infuriating) mistakes that kids have always made. In 2010 a Wisconsin teen was dragged out of a cafeteria in handcuffs, accused of “theft” after sharing a handful of chicken nuggets with a classmate. In that same year alone, Texas police handed out nearly 300,000 misdemeanor tickets to students as young as 6 for “crimes” ranging from not properly cleaning the lunch table to spraying perfume on a school bus. In 2014, an 8-year-old autistic boy was taken to jail, put in a straitjacket and dumped in a cell after allegedly hitting a teacher during an outburst.

See, the thing about kids is that they fuck up. They push buttons, test boundaries, act out, misbehave, talk back, disobey, and disrupt. Sometimes it happens because they don’t know any better, and sometimes because they are intentionally being little assholes. But that is part and parcel of being kid. There is, or at least there should damn well be, a lot of distance between consequences for misbehaving at school and getting handcuffed and thrown in jail, but that is predicated on seeing them as actual children not inherently criminal by default.

When teachers and school administrators feel their next best choice is to have children arrested for breaking school rules, can we still consider that institution “safe” for our youngsters? Isn’t the whole point of an environment like a school — where we send our kids to grow and learn — to provide a safe space where they can make mistakes academically and socially, learn from those mistakes, and then correct their behaviors while the stakes are low?

Today more than 16,000 law enforcement officers are stationed in schools across the country. No doubt many of you would argue that they are there to protect children and staff. But if your definition of “protecting” involves choke-slamming teen-aged girls for what amounts to talking back and disobeying, tossing autistic grade-schoolers in straitjackets, or slapping kids with felony charges for getting on the wrong bus, we’re obviously reading from two completely different dictionaries. This is neither hyperbole, nor snark: We are literally throwing children in jail for being children.

Let’s be clear. Neither of the girls from Spring Valley woke up Monday morning and decided to use the classroom as a launching pad to pursue lives of crime. The adults — the officer, teacher, and administrator in the classroom, and the law makers that decided that “disrupting school” ought to be a criminal offense — did that to them. The same officers and school personnel charged with protecting our kids, backed by the same laws and policies theoretically created with the intention of shielding them from violence, are now turning students into criminals en masse.

It’s soul-crushing to think how radically different our lives might have turned out if Jaquin and I had been born a generation later. A schoolyard fracas like the one we had 20 years ago is grounds for felony assault convictions today. I went to college and ended up getting a job in tech; he served with distinction in the U.S. Marine Corps, then opened up a successful contracting business after being honorably discharged. Neither one of us got rich or changed the world, but we went on to live fairly decent, productive lives. It’s hard to imagine that our lives would have ended up the same way if Ron Lewis had decided to call the cops instead of looking into our eyes with basic humanity and compassion.

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