The FBI and Justice Department are getting involved after a recent video surfaced of a black South Carolina teenage girl getting yanked from her desk and thrown to the classroom floor by a student resource officer. The incident, which took place at Spring Valley High School and was captured by another student, is incredibly hard to watch. The brute force with which the white officer, Deputy Ben Fields, handles the student elicits a visceral reaction. But what’s more disturbing is the trend behind the video.
On display in that recording was the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s a term that refers to America’s over-policed schoolchildren, who are disproportionately students of color. According to the ACLU, the term implies the “policies and practices that push our nation's schoolchildren, especially our most at-risk children, out of classrooms and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
Forty percent of students expelled each year from school are black, according to PBS, and a whopping 70 percent of in-school arrests were of black and Latino students in 2007. The link between schools and prisons is apparent: 68 percent of men in federal prison at that time did not have a high school diploma.
On Tuesday morning, presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders linked the school-to-prison pipeline with the incident at Spring Valley High School, too.
Reports say that Officer Fields showed up because the student was allegedly disruptive. In a video, the officer is heard asking the girl to come with him, and when she refuses he appears to mockingly repeat her. “You don’t know me?” he says. Then the officer says, “I’m going to get you up” seconds before he puts his hands on her and throws her out of her seat onto the ground and forcibly places her under arrest.
Eighteen-year-old Niya Kenny says she was also arrested in the incident, for defending her classmate. "I know this girl don't got nobody and I couldn't believe this was happening," said Kenny in an interview with a local CBS affiliate. "I had never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl. A big man, like 300 pounds of full muscle. I was like 'no way, no way.' You can't do nothing like that to a little girl. I'm talking about she's like 5'6"."
The New York Times reports that the Richland County sheriff, Leon Lott, said his office was “aware of the incident, and are looking into the circumstances that took place this afternoon, and will have more once we look at the information in its entirety.” Fusion reached out to Sheriff Lott’s office by phone but did not hear back by the time of publication.
The school-to-prison pipeline is often discussed and written about in response to the alarmingly high incarceration rate of black men. But the problem also impacts black girls, like the one seen in the video. In the 2011-2012 school year, black girls were suspended six times as often as white girls, according to a 2015 report called Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected released by the African American Policy Forum, a think tank. Black boys were suspended more than three times their white counterparts. In Boston and New York City black girls experienced harsher forms of discipline and larger achievement gap than their white counterparts.
Black girls, according to the report, said they felt uncomfortable with security in their schools. “Some of the young women reported that their discomfort with security rituals such as passing through metal detectors was so great that they were dissuaded from coming to school at all,” said the report.
Kimberle Crenshaw, professor of law at UCLA and founder of the African American Policy Forum told me over the phone that there is a definite connection between the over-disciplining of black girls and violence inflicted upon black women by the state. For Crenshaw, it boils down to one thing: stereotyping. “Girls and black women are seen as are more aggressive and their emotions aren’t read accurately. Hurt and pain and even excitement are misrepresented on black faces,” she says.
Officer Fields, according to NBC News, was the defendant named in a 2013 lawsuit claiming he was "unfairly and recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity." According to the New York Times, Fields is not currently permitted to work at any of the district’s schools.
South Carolina ranked 29th in school referrals to law enforcement, according to The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization.
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.