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What happens when police become school disciplinarians?

Yet another viral video has reignited the national conversation on the interaction between police and people of color, specifically within school. A South Carolina sheriff's deputy was fired after manhandling a teenager in a high school classroom. Gwen Ifill discusses police as disciplinarians with Susan Ferriss of the Center For Public Integrity and Shaun Harper of the University of Pennsylvania.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    Now: the national conversation happening around police, their role in schools and their interaction with African-American students especially.

    Yet another viral video has reignited that debate, prompted by cell phone footage showing a South Carolina sheriff's deputy manhandling a teenager accused of being disruptive. The deputy was working as a school resource officer at Columbia's Spring Valley High School. This morning, that officer, Deputy Ben Fields, was fired.

    His commander, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, says the maneuver he used violated training protocols, but the sheriff also called on the schools to reassess their reliance on police officers to handle discipline problems.

  • LEON LOTT, Richland County Sheriff:

    Well, of course, we're going to use this as a learning opportunity for all of us. We will take what he did and the mistake that he made. We will make sure that all of our deputies who are in the schools and then all the deputies throughout the sheriff's department learn from that, and know that there — you have to do things differently and not like he did.

    We're also going to talk very closely with the school districts and making sure that they understand that when they call us, that we're going to take a law enforcement action. They're there to take administrative actions. And if they want us to take a law enforcement action, then we will do that, but if they don't want us, then they don't need to call us for that.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    For a closer look at discipline and enforcement in schools, we turn to Susan Ferriss, investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity. She's written on the treatment of students by police and the U.S. justice system, and Shaun Harper, associate professor and executive director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.

    Welcome to you both.

    This was clearly a shocking incident. This is something that nobody can argue. But was it rare or was it typical, Susan Ferriss?

    SUSAN FERRISS, Center for Public Integrity: Well, I don't think we really know that, because it's so hard to get documents about incidents that happen in school and arrests.

    But we do know that, in some jurisdictions, there are quite a few arrests of students. There's national data that we have analyzed at the Center for Public Integrity showing that in the 2011/'12 school year, there was an average of six for every 1,000 students who were referred to police from schools. We don't know what those were for.

    The data doesn't tell that, but when you drill down in some places to get police records or school records, you get a better idea, and sometimes there are incidents where kids are manhandled by police, handcuffed, pepper-sprayed, and put into the juvenile justice system.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Shaun Harper, six out of 1,000 at first blush doesn't sound like a lot. What do the numbers tell you?

    SHAUN HARPER, University of Pennsylvania: Well, the numbers tell us that at Spring Valley High School there is a discipline problem. Right?

    So I think that what we saw on the video was just a snapshot of a larger set of structural issues around discipline. So, for instance, black students are just about half of the student body at that particular high school, but yet they are more than 77 percent of students who were suspended from that high school in a single academic school year, which is part of a national phenomenon.

    We at the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education recently published a report that focused on the disproportionate impact of suspension and expulsion on black students in 13 Southern states. And, Gwen, we fund that, of the 1.2 million black students who were suspended nationally, 55 percent of those suspensions occurred in school districts located in the 13 Southern states, including South Carolina.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Susan Ferriss, let's talk about the whole idea of having police officers. You heard what the sheriff had to say in South Carolina. What is the purpose? What was the reason — what is the reasoning for even having armed officers on site?

  • SUSAN FERRISS:

    I think there's a variety of reasons. One, I think, most obviously to people, is fear of school shootings and violence.

    And after a school shooting, there is usually a request locally to add more police to schools, also, going back to the '80s and the '90s, the growth of security guards and police because of fear of violence among students and drugs.

    I don't think that people bargained on officers getting deeply involved in what many people used to consider essentially discipline problems.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Shaun Harper, let me play devil's advocate, because I have seen another video online today where the students were attacking the principal, where the — where teachers felt like they had to protect — have the means to protect themselves against unruly students.

    How did this, or has this gotten out of hand either way?

  • SHAUN HARPER:

    Well, one thing that we now have at our disposal is the video camera footage. Right?

    So I'm not sure that there has been an uptick in or even a decrease in the number of incidents such as the ones that we have seen on these videos, but, just like policing in our larger communities and in our larger society, now we have dash-cams and we have people with cell phones, cell phone cameras, who can, you know, exposed to the world the incidents that are happening.

    So I don't know that I'm able to really comment one way or another about, you know, if, you know, violence against teachers and school leaders, you know, is really, you know, a big problem. What I can say, though, for sure is that the officer who was fired today definitely assaulted that young lady, and I'm so glad that there was someone there with a cell phone camera to capture it.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Let me ask you another question while you're on that point, which is, how do we know that this is race that is driving this? You talked about the disparity in the numbers, but what drives that?

  • SHAUN HARPER:

    Sure.

    I think that — and our research makes very clear that, you know, there are implicit biases that many educators and school administrators and perhaps even school resource officers have about young black children, that we're violent, we're unruly.

    Well, I'm not a child anymore, but they are — just that they're young criminals. We have consumed for almost all of our lives, you know, these messages about who young black people are, so those same messages make their way into schools. And, you know, unfortunately and tragically even, you know, young black kids are often, you know, severely and more harshly penalized for the same kinds of things that young white children do.

    I'm pretty sure that there is a young white boy in a class somewhere in America who had his cell phone out on the same day that that young lady was attacked, and the teacher said, put your cell phone away, and he didn't, but yet, when that young lady, because she's black, right, you know, that engenders a different response that is unequivocally race.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, Susan Ferriss, why doesn't the training for the officers or the school resource officers or the disciplinarians, even teachers, why isn't that taken into account, or is it taken into account in training?

  • SUSAN FERRISS:

    There is really no national standard for that. It's almost done by jurisdiction.

    There are other concerns about the training that police officers should have when they go into schools because of the large number, large from proportion of special needs students also that are getting referred to police and to courts.

    When we did our data analysis, we found that there were 14 percent of students in the United States who had special needs, but there were — but 26 percent of those referred to police were special needs students.

    I will give you an example of what we found in Virginia. Virginia was the top state that we found when we analyzed this data, at about three times what the national average was. We looked at some cases, including the case of an 11-year-old boy with autism in a school. He was first cited by an officer, a school resource officer, for kicking a trash can during a bad moment he was having in the school principal's office.

    The school resource officer decided to go down to the juvenile court and file this petition for disorderly conduct. Later on, the boy walked out of class without permission. He was having trouble in his class. And the officer was told to go get him by the school principal. When the officer went to get him, he didn't — the boy didn't comply with an order to go to the office.

    The officer grabbed him, and the boy struggled. The boy ended up charged with felony assault on a police officer, at 11.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    So, a lot of this — a lot of this has to decide whether — who is — who is disciplining, who decides what is excessive and whether it's a behavior or a discipline.

    Shaun Harper, University of Pennsylvania, Susan Ferriss from the Center for Public Integrity, thank you both very much.

  • SUSAN FERRISS:

    Thank you.

  • SHAUN HARPER:

    Thank you, Gwen.

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