Education Interrupted: South Carolina Assault Renews Debate On Race & Punishment

Education Interrupted: South Carolina Assault Renews Debate On Race & Punishment

Outrage has rang out across the nation, after a video of a South Carolina officer assaulting a student at Spring Valley High School went viral earlier this week. Called into a classroom after a student refused to leave, the situation quickly escalated as Deputy Ben Fields made the decision to forcibly remove the 14-year-old child from her desk, flipping it over and dragging the female student in the process. Another student, identified as Niya Kenny, 18, was also arrested during the incident, after speaking out against the assault.

Said Kenny, “I was crying screaming and crying like a baby. I was in disbelief.”

Though a respect for authority figures is something that must be instilled in our youth, the manner in which we deal with them must also be examined. As many are left wondering why a parent cannot discipline their own child without fear of consequence, yet an officer of the law is seemingly justified due to the child “mouthing off.”

Even more disturbing, is the fact that Fields has previous complaints of excessive force, including a pending lawsuit filed by a previous student who alleges that he was unfairly labeled as a “gang member” despite having no known gang affiliation, as well as an assault on a veteran.

While each generation is tasked with handling it’s own set of challenges, for students today, this includes everything from online bullying to a rise in school shootings. Unfortunately there’s something else that we’ve unwittingly passed down to them as well; inequality. To be clear, this is not the same education system that you and I remember. Though the debate over things like curriculum and standardized testing rages on, one thing that’s become clear is the failure to apply fair punishments fairly across the board. Instead, studies have confirmed that children of color are disproportionately punished under “zero-tolerance” guidelines, for acts that other groups are simply given slaps on the wrist for.

This issue has become especially problematic in the South, where one University of Pennsylvania study concluded that out of 84 districts across 13 states, Black students made up 100% of those suspended from school.

Yes, you read that right.

According to the Department of Education, “Black students are suspended three times as often as white boys,” a harsh reality that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan explained “This data collection shines a clear, unbiased light on places that are delivering on the promise of an equal education for every child and places where the largest gaps remain. In all, it is clear that the United States has a great distance to go to meet our goal of providing opportunities for every student to succeed.”

Suspended at six times the rate of their counterparts, unfortunately black girls fared no better, which calls the manner in which punishment is distributed across racial and gender lines into question.

Added African American Policy Form (AAPF) executive-director Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw“The imposition of harsh disciplinary policies in public schools is a well-known risk factor for stunted educational opportunities for Black and Latino boys. Such punishments also negatively affect their female counterparts… The risks that Black and other girls of color confront rarely receive the full attention of researchers, advocates, policy makers and funders.

She added, “Blacks tend to be seen as threatening because, by nature, people assume they’re more aggressive.” So the question remains, how can those charged with educating and protecting our youth truly do so, if they already view them as a threat?

For now it’s an ongoing investigation, as the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office work to determine whether the student’s rights were violated during the arrest, those she may be forced to accept accountability for the incidents leading up to the incident.

Said Curtis Lavarello, head of the School Safety Advocacy Council, “We saw a pretty routine discipline issue become a criminal issue in just a matter of minutes… It escalated needlessly.”


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