Since last week, Americans have been discussing the brutal attack on a 16-year-old Black female high-school student by a White South Carolina school resource officer. Some have demanded accountability of Deputy Ben Fields, a.k.a. “Officer Slam,” while others have defended him, including students who organized a walkout. Many people across the racial spectrum have chastised, excoriated, and blamed the teen for being brutalized—saying that she brought it upon herself. What has largely gone unspoken here is that this one horrific example that happened to be caught on video—by another student (Niya Kenny, who was arrested) is set in one of so many criminalized school settings, and we are witnessing yet another Black youth being denied her childhood.
We have seen this scenario play out repeatedly, the way Black children’s emotional lives are repeatedly denied, how they have no protections, no presumption of innocence, no right to bodily integrity. And they are being arrested to facilitate the flow of Black and Latino bodies straight into the nation’s prison pipeline.
The nature of today’s schools, particularly those inhabited by Black and Latino children, is all too clear in that viral video. The eerie silence from the students shows us a classroom devoid of life and the exuberance associated with high school. As the officer terrorizes their classmate, the other students sit in silence, eyes downcast. You can almost feel and smell their fear during the officer’s attack, wondering if he had introduced himself and his bullyclub pedagogy in previous weeks. Even the teen sits in silence as she’s yanked and thrown by the officer. No screams. No crying. It appears as if she’s almost intuitively submitting to the injustice of the moment.
The behavior of the students at Spring Valley tells us that they are no strangers to witnessing and/or experiencing this kind of violence—via “Officer Slam,” in their homes and neighborhoods, or via news coverage and nonstop social-media videos of Black people being attacked and sometimes killed by White cops.
It reveals a lot about a culture that renders Black children’s pain, trauma and grief illegible. This is part of a long racist heritage of denying Black children access to the category of childhood and innocence. When Officer Slam threw that child across the room he sent the message to Black children everywhere:“You ain’t shit!”
Then the sheriff blames the student. The media played that footage over and over again, with some referring to the teenage girl as “a woman.” They blamed her for having reflexes when she responded to being yanked out of her chair by a brute. That’s because whiteness needs to exonerate itself by placing blame and all social ills at the feet of the Black child’s body, even though we all know good and goddamn well that if a Black officer had thrown a White child across the room, the country would be having a very different conversation.
Watching her be thrown around like a rag doll triggered my personal memories of childhood abuse.
When I was around 5 or 6 my adoptive Black mother used to pick me up and throw me across the room when she got angry. I could only hope that I landed the right way and didn’t hit my head or break my neck. At the nearly all-Black private Bethany Lutheran School I attended in Trenton, New Jersey, she gave my White teachers and principal permission to hit me if I acted out in class. Most of the other Black parents did the same. Teachers slapped us in the face, on our butts, or snatched us inside the coat closet, pulled down our pants and whacked us with long wooden rulers. And if our offenses were especially egregious, they called our parents who sometimes showed up to the school wielding a belt or freshly picked switches. I’ll never forget the time my music teacher threw a handful of pink pencil erasers in my face at close range. I’ll spare you the details of what I fantasize about saying to her if I ever see her on the street.
Everywhere I turned—home, school, church, the hair salon, the barbershop—the message was that everyone could whoop me because they didn’t want “the White man” to whoop me.
The words that were spoken by the other students at Spring Valley are equally telling. One of her classmates said, “She doesn’t have anybody.” “She doesn’t talk to anybody.” “She’s always quiet.” Someone noted that she was a recent transfer student. Those descriptions, coupled with the way she braced that assault with quiet resolve, made me wonder if there was a deeper story, if she was already bringing a set of traumas into the classroom with her. Traumas and pain that the school is unwilling or incapable of addressing, especially if the police are on speed dial.
While there have been multiple and conflicting reports, it appears the girl is currently in foster care. This is not surprising and is part of the story. Not because it proves she is “bad” or growing up in a dysfunctional environment that led her to “act up,” although that is clearly the narrative being peddled. It reflects a societal disregard for the lives of Black girls. Her being tossed aside and thrown out as a disruptive piece of trash, is emblematic of the societal values toward marginalized kids, whether with foster care or the school-to-prison pipeline that sees little value in their humanity and future. Schools, foster care, prisons, and police encounters teach this lesson over and over again. And if we weren’t doing wrong, then the onus is on us to “behave” and respond in such a way to minimize the chance of being slammed, attacked, arrested, or killed.
The nonstop stress and emotional trauma of being in foster care is essential here. It must be easy to cast judgment from your picket fence for those who say: “IF she just did …”
After eight years of abuse I finally ran away from my adoptive parents’ home and ended up in foster care. Every day at school was hard when I was in foster care. I was case number 114343. I felt ashamed about being an adoptee, a victim of child abuse, ashamed of the scars on my body, ashamed that I had to live in youth shelters and in the homes of strangers, and ashamed that I had to travel from one placement to the next, like a refugee, with my belongings packed in garbage bags. I was teased, isolated, frustrated, exhausted, and anxious about an uncertain future. If I had a cell phone, maybe I would have found refuge there. Instead, I had to deal with the drama inside my foster homes and residential facilities where other traumatized kids fought each other. I didn’t have access to my own belongings much less privacy.
I lived in places where they locked the refrigerators. Put alarms on our doors. Sometimes the mostly white staff members treated us like we were criminals, even though we were victims.
As each day went by, I wondered when my social worker would show up at school with my belongings in those garbage bags, tossing me to the next placement. Sometimes I missed weeks of school. My teachers often were often unaware of why I was absent because social workers didn’t always communicate with school administrators. I was mad all the time; who wouldn’t be mad? Some days I stormed out of class. Other times, I just sat there giving zero fucks about solving for “x” or “y” or how to conjugate a verb in French or how to regurgitate historical facts about how great famous White people have been. I didn’t want to be bothered because I had no control over my world. I felt powerless, invisible, unheard, and constantly on edge.
The South Carolina student’s reported refusal to give up her cell phone is understandable to me. Children in foster care don’t have much property or many lifelines. There is so little that you can call your own, much less control. You’ve already been abused, abandoned, violated and made to feel like a number rather than a child. Rather than a human. You have to deal with the shame and embarrassment of the violation and circumstances that landed you in the system. Your trauma is likely to be misdiagnosed and rather than receiving adequate counseling, too many children in foster care are given psychotropic meds, with no caring adults to monitor their response to the drugs, potential side effects or even if they’re helping at all.
The culture of dehumanization and the lack of empathy within the foster-care system is why it is becoming the breeding ground for the juvenile and adult prison industry. As the child welfare workforce is dominated by White women who, like White (and self-hating Black) teachers, principals and resource officers, carry implicit biases against Black people, even the grieving and traumatized Black children in their care. There is a mismatch between the student population, which is rapidly browning, as well as the foster-care population, and those paid to teach and keep children safe.
And that, coupled with a widening racial empathy gap and the fact that few people are considering the emotional lives of these children, leads to the situations we are seeing today. When Black and Brown children come into the foster care system, they are traumatized, often abused, but their behaviors are not contextualized as symptoms of grief, trauma and loss. In a culture that demonizes children of color, that refuses to see them as innocent, as young people who have pain and trauma and emotional lives—they are then criminalized. What happened in that South Carolina classroom is the perfect case study that bears this out. Rather than hear voice, respect and validate her anger and pain, and empathize with her trauma, the response was to brutalize and drag her into the punitive system.
Black children in general are not afforded the right to have freedom over their bodies and expression. They are not afforded the privilege of evolving through the primitive stages of childhood. They are not allowed to have or express emotions, to have moods, to act out, have an attitude or make mistakes without the fear of being brutalized, locked up or killed.
In these moments, the news media wants to push for yet another “racial conversation.” Yet a prerequisite for a meaningful conversation and substantive change: empathy for Black people. This is clearly missing.
Research at the University of Milan-Biocca examined why Black people’s pain is underestimated. “It turns out assumptions about what it means to be black—in terms of social status and hardship—may be behind the bias. In additional experiments, the researchers studied participants’ assumptions about adversity and privilege. The more privilege assumed of the target, the more pain the participants perceived. Conversely, the more hardship assumed, the less pain perceived. The researchers concluded that people assume that, relative to Whites, Blacks feel less pain because they have faced more hardship.”
Add to that the fact that, “starting at around 7 years of age, American children (mostly White) believe that Black kids feel less pain than their White counterparts,” according to a study from the British Journal of Developmental Psychology.
Medical professionals don’t outgrow this belief.
Colorlines reported on a study published in Jama Pediatrics that found that doctors are less likely to give Black children painkillers in the emergency room than their White peers—even when they are suffering from agonizing conditions. The report, “Racial Disparities in Pain Management of Children With Appendicitis in Emergency Departments,” found that across all backgrounds, 57 percent of children who arrived in the ER with acute appendicitis were given pain medication. Despite the fact that experts agree that appendicitis is a condition that requires opioids (such as fentanyl and morphine) for pain relief, just 41 percent of the children received them … Only 21 percent [of Black children] were given opioids, versus 43 percent of White patients. Overall, the researchers found that Black kids with acute appendicitis only have a 12 percent chance of receiving proper pain management.
A 2011 study found that White people do not feel the same level of empathy for Black people experiencing physical pain that they do for people of their own race. And other studies have uncovered racial bias in medical care for people of color. It’s a phenomenon so widespread that the government’s Healthy People 2020 initiative counts eliminating that health inequity as one of its goals.”
In absence of empathy or even recognition of Black pain, it is no wonder that Officer Slam is empowered to keep our ‘kids safe;’ it is no wonder that everyone from Raven Symoné to Fox News feels no shame in blaming Black kids for their own pain. The consequences are clear.
If nobody is considering, or looking out for, or thinking about how to protect vulnerable Black children—who represent all of the promise and peril of our future as a community and a nation—then we can expect to keep seeing these disturbing videos, struggling to process these horrific attacks, straining to maintain our own balance in precarious times. If Black children are indeed a major part of our future, then we have much to learn and many changes to make in how we view, treat and care for them. We must invest in their emotional well-being and demonstrate to them that their lives don’t just have meaning when they become hashtags.
Harsh discipline isn’t colorblind.
In 1920, W.E.B. DuBois wrote: “There is no place for black children in this world.” Almost a century later, that remains true. Too often, to grow up black in the United States is to live in a perpetual state of vulnerability to the brutality of racism: People fear you, and you know there is no safe place for you. For many white children, the future is one of hope and endless possibilities. How can black children have hope, how can they dream, when they’re unable to feel safe, secure and loved by society?
The daily incidents are startling reminders of how far we have to go to secure a post-racial future. Black kids have been slapped on a plane for crying, verbally assaulted by racists on a school bus, terrorized at a birthday party by armed white men carrying Confederate flags, had their hair cut off in front of the class by a teacher, called “feral” in a viral, racist social media post, and assaulted by police at poolparties.
That precariousness in black children’s lives was on display again with this week’s viral video of a white cop brutally assaulting a black student in a Spring Valley, S.C., classroom. Many angry black viewers have been vocal on social media, reflecting a weary frustration: Just how much more of this are we expected to take?
In reality, though, this is not an isolated incident. This kind of harsh discipline has been the reality of growing up black and quasi-free in the United States for more than a century. What happened in Spring Valley isn’t an isolated individual attack on a black child; it’s an example of what our racist society does to black children far too often.
Like a growing numberof schools across the country, Spring Valley High School in Richland County, S.C., has opened its doors to the police, with Ben Fields, a 34-year-old, hulking senior deputy in the sheriff’s department, patrolling its hallways as the school’s resource officer.
Despite lawsuits against him for excessive force, Fields had been entrusted by the school to protect students and make sure the learning environment was safe. But no one protected the 16-year-old black girl whom he grabbed by the neck and threw to the floor while she sat silent at her desk. No one protected her from being dragged and tossed across the floor like a ragdoll, forced into handcuffs and arrested.
Fields was called to the classroom to discipline the student, who — depending on which account you listen to — was either verbally disruptive, chewing gum, quiet or not bothering either her classmates or teacher. In other words, she was behaving like a normal teenager. But in the video, it appears she was treated like a criminal, a piece of trash that needed to be tossed aside without any regard for her feelings or rights. (Fields, meanwhile, will reportedly be fired on Wednesday.)
South Carolina is one of 19 states that still allow children to be whacked with wooden boards in schools for minor infractions, such as chewing gum, being late to class, talking back to a teacher, failing to do homework, violating the dress code, going to the bathroom without permission or more serious transgressions such as fighting. And like so much discipline in the United States, that punishment is often meted out disproportionately to black children. According to a survey from the Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, black children made up 18 percent of our nation’s students but accounted for 35 percent of reported cases of corporal punishment in 2012. A 2014 report from Indiana University’s Equity Project found that black students are likely to be disciplined more frequently than their white peers, even though there’s no significant difference in behavior between the groups.
That’s often true whether it’s white adults or black adults hitting children. In April 2014, the Nation reported on the small town of Lexington, Miss., a state where 64 percent of all paddled students are black. There, the magazine found that most wielders of the paddle and vocal defenders of the practice are black educators. In Holmes County, a poor district where 99 percent of the students are black, white and black educators alike hit kids in day care and pre-school with pencils and rulers. Elementary and high school employee handbooks in that county call for the wooden paddle to be up to 30 inches long, half an inch thick, and from 2 to 3 inches wide. The teachers, according to the Nation, tell misbehaving students to “talk to the wood or go to the hood,” which means choose between being paddled or suspended from school.
The ACLU found that while corporal punishment rates in public schools have declined over the last 30 years, a disproportionate number of black students continue to be hit by teachers and principals. Data from the Education Department show that, as with suspensions and expulsions, black children are far more likely to be targeted for paddling than white students.
Dennis Parker, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, examined school-based paddling and concluded that it not only negatively affects children, but also serves as the first stage in what’s known as the school-to-prison pipeline. His team found that students of color, especially black girls, are far more likely to be paddled than their white peers.
“So many of the problems in discipline disparities are the result of this idea of what is perceived to be threatening,” Parker told me. “People respond to black children differently and are more likely to read behaviors as being disrespectful and insubordinate. Teachers are more likely to punish black children because they are not aware of their own biases and how those biases affect the ways they interact with students.”
Parker’s examination of records from Mississippi schools found that white students tended to be paddled for infractions, such as drugs, vandalism or bringing weapons to school. Black students were punished for things like rolling their eyes, talking back, questioning a teacher or excessive noise.
“These are behaviors that involve someone’s perception of disrespect, and they are not divorced from race,” he said. In that context, hitting can be seen as not only acceptable, but necessary.
In 2014, the Children’s Defense Fund reported that more than 800 children were being hit each day at school, totaling close to 200,000 instances of corporal punishment a year. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch report that school paddlings send thousands of students to seek medical treatment for welts, bruises and broken bones. The long-term effect of this so-called tough love, according to the report, is that many children are becoming angry and lashing out at teachers and other students, rather than improving behavior. Some students become depressed, withdrawn or disengaged from school as a result; others seem resigned to the constant violence, accepting it as a fact of their daily lives.
As the Spring Hill video demonstrates, black girls are common targets. Earlier this year, the African American Policy Forum and Columbia Law School’s Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies released a report that found girls of color face much harsher school discipline than their white peers, citing numerous examples of excessive disciplinary actions against young black girls.
The most recent federal data cited in the report reveals that nationally black girls were suspended six times more than white girls, while black boys were suspended three times as often as white boys. In New York, there were more than 10 times as many disciplinary cases involving black girls as those involving their white counterparts, and the number of cases involving black boys was six times the number of those involving white boys, though there were only twice as many black students as white students.
Our states require school employees to report suspicions of child abuse at home. So why do so many of them allow and even encourage the same employees to hit children with wooden boards, placing them at risk for physical and psychological harm?
We imagine schools as places free from violence, where children are supposed to learn how to think, how to communicate, how to interact socially, and grow intellectually so they can become good citizens. So why are so many of them also places of metal detectors, paddles and aggressive cops who will toss a student across the room for being a teenager while black?
And yet the immediate response from some to the South Carolina incident — including Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott — has been to blame this child for being brutalized by a grown man.
No wonder that so many of our kids grow up expecting to be victims of brutality. No wonder that the kids in that classroom sat quietly, eyes downcast and frozen with fear as their classmate was attacked. The daily message from cops, principals, teachers and even from parents who tolerate this system by granting administrators permission to paddle their kids is clear: The world can beat you, attack you — even kill you — and it’s possible that nobody will dare, or care enough, to intervene. Everyone can assault you. You have no right to bodily integrity. No right to freedom of expression. You are never innocent; you are perceived as hostile, dangerous, and a threat to be beaten into submission. There is still no place for black children in this world.
The video of a school police officer at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, brutally throwing a black student across the room after she refused to give up her phone is a visceral reminder of how school discipline can fall more harshly on black students.
Starting even before kindergarten, black students are more likely to be suspended or expelled. They’re more likely to be referred to law enforcement or even arrested. And even when they’re breaking the same rules, studies have found black students are punished more often and more harshly than their white peers.
1) The gap between discipline for black and white students starts in preschool
Black students make up about 18 percent of preschool enrollments. But they’re far more likely to be suspended than their white peers. Nearly half of all preschoolers suspended more than once during the 2011-’12 school year were black, according to a 2014 report from the Education Department.
Even when preschool programs don’t lead to better grades for students later, studieshave generally found that kids who attend are less likely to have behavioral problems in elementary school. So sending preschoolers home for acting out means kicking out the students who could benefit the most.
And suspending and expelling 3- and 4-year-olds is more common than you might think. A 2005 study from Yale University found that kids are suspended more frequently in pre-K than they are in K-12 education. The study also concluded that black children in public preschool programs were suspended at twice the rate of Latino and Caucasian children, just as the Education Department found.
2) Black students are suspended or expelled at higher rates throughout their school years
The disparities that start in preschool continue into K-12 education. Black students, who make up 16 percent of the population, are three times more likely than white students to be suspended or expelled. In the 2011-’12 school year, 20 percent of black boys enrolled in school were suspended, as were 12 percent of black girls.
Teachers and administrators argue that sometimes it’s necessary to suspend students because they’re disrupting class and making it harder for other students to learn. But the evidence for that proposition is lacking. A study of suspensions in Kentucky schools found that students in the schools that suspended students most frequently had lower test scores in reading and math — and that was true even for students who hadn’t been suspended. The relationship held even after controlling for school violence, poverty, and other factors that could affect schools’ use of suspensions as discipline.
3) Black students are far more likely to be arrested at school
When police get involved in school discipline, students start down the “school-to-prison pipeline”: Their disciplinary infractions at school turn into a criminal record. The number of school resource officers, police officers assigned to schools, has been growing fast since the 1990s.
Schools hired these officers due to concerns about school shootings and, in some places, gang violence. But a school with a school resource officer is also much more likely to refer kids to the juvenile justice system, even after controlling for outside factors, such as poverty. And nationally, the kids who are referred are disproportionately black, according to data from the Office for Civil Rights.
Some judges are pushing back at the creep of the criminal justice system into school. A juvenile court judge in Georgia testified before Congress in 2012, saying school “zero tolerance” policies — which sent kids to the court system on their first offense — were overloading the system and making it impossible to concentrate on, and prevent, more serious crimes.
4) Differences in behavior can’t explain the disparity
A common reaction to the discipline disparities is to suggest that something other than race is at work — that they’re a function of poverty, or that black students are simply more likely to misbehave. But analyses of the data have found that isn’t true. Black students and white students are sent to the principal’s office at similar rates; states report they commit more serious offenses, such as carrying weapons or drugs at school, at similar rates; and when surveyed about their own behavior, they report similar patterns. Even in cases in which black students do disproportionately act out — a 2008 analysis found twice as many black boys as white boys reported bringing a gun to school — they’re more likely to be punished than white students who committed the same infraction.
A study by researchers at Villanova University found that the percentage of black students at a school corresponded with how frequently that school suspended and expelled students. Strikingly, there was no relationship between how often schools suspended students and how much violence and drug activity the schools actually reported. When it came to how often schools doled out punishment, students’ race appeared far more significant than their actual behavior.
A 2002 study found black students are more likely to be disciplined for subjective offenses, such as defiance or loitering; white students are more likely to be disciplined for more clear-cut reasons, such as cutting class, smoking, and vandalism. And a sweeping 2012 study of discipline policies in Texas backed this up: Even after controlling for 83 other factors, black students were 31 percent more likely to be suspended for discretionary reasons, rather than because they committed infractions where suspension was a mandatory punishment. That suggests some form of implicit bias is at play that leads to harsher punishment for black students than for others.
5) The disparities are particularly striking in the South
Thirteen states in the South are responsible for the majority of black students’ in-school and out-of-school suspensions nationwide, according to recent research from the University of Pennsylvania.
The differences were particularly striking in schools with very few black students. The smaller the black student population, the more likely those black students were to make up a disproportionate share of suspensions and expulsions.
Schools in the South are also more likely to still use corporal punishment, which also falls harder on black students. In the 19 states where corporal punishment at school is still allowed, black students are paddled more than white ones. But the racial dynamics are complicated. As the Hechinger Report explained in an article from Mississippi, black students are often being paddled by black teachers and administrators, and the punishment is in many cases supported within the community.
6) Black girls are punished at even more disproportionate rates
Boys of all races are disciplined more frequently than girls. But black girls are suspended more frequently than girls of any other race, and more frequently than white, Hispanic, or Asian boys, according to the 2014 report from the Office of Civil Rights.
A report looking at discipline policy in two big urban school districts — New York and Boston — found similar trends. In New York, 90 percent of all girls expelled in one year were black. In Boston, 63 percent were. No white girls were expelled during that school year in either city.
7) Dark-skinned black girls are punished more than lighter-skinned peers
There aren’t just racial disparities in discipline rates — there are also disparities in how black students are disciplined that appear to be literally based on skin color. Research from Villanova University in 2013 found that darker-skinned black students were more likely to be suspended than black students with lighter skin. This was particularly true for girls, who seemed to be driving the overall disparity: Darker-skinned black girls were suspended three times more often than lighter-skinned girls.