Spring Valley High School: A Teachable Moment

I like to believe that I have a very strong imagination. But the video clip of deputy sheriff Ben Fields throwing a female African-American student across a classroom in Spring Valley High School in South Carolina several days ago pushed my imaginative capacities to the breaking point. I tried to imagine how terrifying and painful it must have been for that student to have flipped over, still seated in her desk (as a former teacher, I know very well what those desks feel like), then to be pulled out of that chair and dragged across the classroom floor by a larger and stronger police officer, who then handcuffed her; I tried to imagine the shocked incredulity of her classmates who bore witness to the scene that unfolded before their eyes; and I struggled
to imagine the horror and anger which the student's parents or guardians must have felt when they saw the clip of what had happened to their daughter.

In a not-yet-over year that has overflowed with so many danses macabres between white police officers and African-Americans, this is yet another that causes us to pause, rail, and then add our outrage to the social media bulletin board of our choice until this, too, passes, only to be supplanted by another "incident."

Once again, the media's emotion-packed opinions and analyses have been unleashed upon our eyes, ears and minds. Some of those words contend that this incident was, again, racially motivated, another example of an attack on the "black body," a term that has entered the lexicon through the writings of journalist and author Ta-Nahisi Coates, in elucidating the African-American experience. Some words assert that nowhere in America is African-American youth safe, not even the place where safety is supposed to be most assured: in school. Ben Fields' action on the student should come as no surprise, given the state of race relations in this country of late, many would argue. And other words argue that the fault lies with the student herself, who through disobedience to both her teacher and the school principal, caused the resulting police action.

There seems to be no soft place to land in such a story, no sunlit room in which to find comfort and release from the shadows of conflict, acrimony, and hopelessness it engenders. We must either choose one side only or get out the way.

Whether Ben Fields' behavior was the expression of race hatred towards the African-American student is, in my view, impossible to know with absolute certainty. The human mind is notoriously unfathomable, and too often defies our attempts to plumb its mysterious depths. That Fields is reportedly in a relationship with an African-American woman, is irrelevant, and is not necessarily useful information towards characterizing his attitudes towards other African-Americans one way or the other.

What can and should be plumbed is school policy and whether the language of that policy is clear, understood by all who need to know it, and whether it is consistently and fairly applied. From what this writer has learned, Spring Valley High School's (and South Carolina's) policy for student discipline may well be the fly in the ointment as to why a police officer was called into the Algebra I class where this disturbing event occurred.

The answer may come from a misdemeanor offense for "disturbing schools," per the summary from the South Carolina State House:

This will strike us as a vague crime based on a vague law, according to which students can be charged for "acting in an obnoxious manner" in a school. The punishment would cost a kid many months of allowances: a fine of up to $1,000 or jail time up to 90 days. This is the statute that the Spring Valley High student was charged for refusing to put away her cellphone and leave the classroom as requested by her teacher.

This is a statute whose origins can be traced back to the tough-on-crime policies that came into existence over the past few decades, have been appropriated in many of the nation's schools, and have resulted in schools outsourcing more discipline to law enforcement. Instead of a teacher or principal addressing student misbehavior, a police officer can step in.

It is at this juncture where critics point out that adoption of such laws and policies such as "disturbing schools" tend to be racially skewed, in that schools with larger poor and minority populations are more likely to impose severe disciplinary policies, such as suspensions, expulsions, police referrals and arrests, rather than to offer medical, psychological or behavioral care.

What happened on October 26 resulted from a broken policy, one that seems
highly subjective and therefore dangerously open to interpretation. Even if officers who take over for teachers, counselors and administrators are not motivated by racial bias, vague laws and policies can often bring subconscious biases to the surface when applied against minority groups. Vague and unfair discipline policies also remove the power from the very people who should have it most: teachers, counselors, administrators, and parents or guardians. Even students could be involved in policy creation. These are the constituents who should join forces to hammer out fair and realistic policies because they know the students better than any police officer ever could.

Having taught for over two decades, I am well aware that young people can frequently
try the patience of adults. They need to learn the importance of showing respect to adults and to one another and following rules that are ostensibly in their best interest. If the rules don't work, fix them. But adults must bear the burden to be on "higher ground" when it comes to discipline, which means showing self-control to establish order, and having a variety of proactive options to address difficult students. A lot can be accomplished with reason... and a little imagination.

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