A new video out of Mentor, Ohio, shows a white police officer seemingly starting a physical confrontation with a black high school student after the student was reportedly spotted with an electronic cigarette on campus.
In the video, captured by a fellow student, an officer is seen repeatedly pushing the student before tackling him to the ground and handcuffing him. The student backs away from the officer after the first shove, seemingly in an attempt to de-escalate the situation.
"Wait a second, why is the cop starting shit with him?" remarks an off-camera student who is watching the incident unfold.
Possession of nicotine or a tobacco product by a minor is, by all accounts, a minor infraction. In Ohio, it carries the penalty of a $100 fine, having to attend a tobacco education program, or both.
Or, as they used to do in my high school, authorities would just take it away from you. Case closed.
But that's not what happened here. The 16-year-old student was arrested on charges of resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and given a smoking citation. He was also reportedly given a 10-day suspension, which the school later said it had reversed after video of the incident went viral.
In a press release, the Mentor Police Department said the student "became verbally abusive and physically defiant as he attempted to push his way past the officer in order to board a school bus," at which point the officer had to use force.
There's such a thing in this country as the "school to prison pipeline." That is what observers call the practice of pushing students—disproportionately minority students—out of school and into the criminal justice system for minor infractions which have traditionally not involved law enforcement. Think getting arrested on charges of disorderly conduct for using an iPad against school policy (it happens).
For the record, Ohio is better than most states when it comes to this practice. It was the third least likely to call police for a minor infraction on campus, according to a recent ranking by the Center for Public Integrity, using data from the Department of Education. Only Nevada and Washington D.C. ranked ahead of it.
But the incident mentioned above is indicative of a larger, national trend. In Virginia, about 16 in every 1,000 students get referred to law enforcement for minor infractions, the highest rate in the country. Troublingly, this happens to black students at about double the rate as white students in the state. In Utah, it happens to blacks at over four times the rate of whites.
An extreme case from Virginia involved 11-year-old autistic student Kayleb Moon-Robinson, who was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after kicking a trashcan during a tantrum earlier this school year. Weeks later, he broke a classroom rule that was only intended for him: that he wait until everyone else left the class before leaving himself. The same officer was called to the classroom, and when he grabbed the boy, Kayleb resisted. In the end he was charged with felony assault on a police officer.
Earlier this week, a judge found him guilty of the charge, which will likely stick with him for life.
“I thought in my mind — Kayleb is 11,” his mother told the Center for Public Integrity. “He is autistic. He doesn't fully understand how to differentiate the roles of certain people.”
Special needs students represent 26 percent of the students referred to law enforcement nationwide, found the report, though they only account for 14 percent of school enrollment.
In another WTF case out of Virginia, a school officer handcuffed a 4-year-old and brought him to the sheriff's office after he was throwing blocks and acting up in class. "I can't imagine any scenario where it would be appropriate to handcuff a child that young," a local psychologist said about the incident.
One of the most frequently cited arguments against using police to address behavioral issues in schools came from Steven C. Teske, a juvenile court judge from Clayton County, Georgia. In 2012, he offered the following testimony to a Senate Subcommittee for "Ending the School to Prison Pipeline":
When I took the bench in 1999, I was shocked to find that approximately one-third of the cases in my courtroom were school-related, of which most were low risk misdemeanor offenses. Upon reviewing our data, the increase in school arrests did not begin until after police were placed on our middle and high school campuses in 1996—well before the horrific shootings at Columbine High School. The year before campus police, my court received only 49 school referrals. By 2004, the referrals increased over 1,000 percent to 1,400 referrals, of which 92% were misdemeanors mostly involving school fights, disorderly conduct, and disrupting public school.
Despite the many arrests, school safety did not improve. The number of serious weapons brought to campus increased during this period of police arrests including guns, knives, box cutter knives, and straight edge razors. Of equal concern was the decrease in the graduation rates during this same period—it reached an all-time low in 2003 of 58%. It should come to no one’s surprise that the more students we arrested, suspended, and expelled from our school system, the juvenile crime rate in the community significantly increased. These kids lost one of the greatest protective buffers against delinquency—school connectedness.
Back in Ohio, the Mentor School District said that it is investigating the incident, and that the officer captured in the video has been taken off of school duty while the investigation is open. "While we cannot discuss individual cases involving our students publicly, safety and security remain our district's top priority," reads the statement.
Alicia Craft, the student's mother, told a local television station that her son was left with multiple scratches and bruises from the incident, and that she was "very very disrupted" after seeing the video.
She also mentioned that she does not want her son to return to the school.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.