If you want to understand why Dropout Nation focuses a lot of attention on the overuse of harsh traditional school discipline — even at the annoyance of traditionalists and some school reformers who would rather defend these harmful practices under the guise of autonomy and school choice — consider yesterday’s news that a school police officer in Columbia, S.C., assaulted a high school student. No one who is morally or intellectually honest can defend the kinds of practices that contribute to what can be barbaric and inhumane of our children.
As many of you know by now, Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields threw down a student at Spring Valley High School. But how it all began is even more outrageous. See, Fields was called into the classroom by a teacher, who, along with a school leader, called in the cop the student wouldn’t leave the class for allegedly being disruptive. The disruption? She briefly pulled out her smartphone during class time. When Fields couldn’t get the child to leave, he pulled her from her desk, forced her to fall backwards in her chair, then grabbed her neck, lifted her up and threw her several feet across the classroom. Fields, by the way, is also a bodybuilder. After the assault, the young woman was put under arrest. [Another student, Niya Kenny, was also arrested after she stood up for her classmate.]
Thanks to other children in the class, who managed to videotape the incident on their smartphones, Fields has now been barred from Spring Valley and other schools in the district. But he shouldn’t have been in any school in the first place. Fields, along with the district, Richland County School District 2, is being sued by one former Spring Valley student, Ashton James Reese, of being involved in a gang fight in a store next to the school and engaged in gang activity even though neither the cop nor the assistant principal involved could provide any written testimony identifying the kid as being involved. [Field’s report led Richland 2 to expel Reese from school without even informing him or his family.]
Based on that suit alone, neither the Richland County Sheriff nor the district should have allowed Fields to patrol school corridors. That Fields and his employer were unsuccessfully sued eight years ago for excessive force during an arrest for playing loud music in public should have also raised questions about his fitness to work in schools.
But the problem doesn’t just lie with Fields. There’s also the teacher, who had initially called for him to step in and remove the child from the classroom for allegedly disrupting class. Considering that the child was not engaged in any form of violent behavior, the teacher could have used other approaches to dealing with the student other than calling up the cop. One possibility laid with the child’s classmates, who could have easily used peer pressure to get her back in line. Another: Deal with the student as the child she is. As Anita Silverman, the principal of the now-shuttered Pacers Academy in Indianapolis told your editor back in 2005, even the most-disruptive child will back down when they are reminded that the adult is in charge. [That the school leader involved couldn’t address the issue either also says plenty about the capacity to do the job.]
Put simply, it is all too clear that the teacher involved in the incident lacked the classroom management skills need to instruct properly. But it is even worse than that. By standing by as Fields assaulted the child, and staying silent even as he tossed her into the air, this teacher demonstrated a stunning and morally reprehensible lack of compassion. This teacher should no longer be in the profession.
But it isn’t enough to be outraged at the failures of Fields and the teacher for failing to deal properly with a youth in their care. After all, a police officer doesn’t patrol the halls of a school unless they are brought in to do so by a school district. Just as importantly, a teacher won’t call a cop to deal with a discipline matter they should handle on their own unless encouraged to do so, either directly or implicitly, by school and district leadership. Based on the fact that 36 forced to attend Richland 2 schools (including six condemned to its the district’s special education ghetto) were arrested in 2011-2012, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education, this is clearly the case.
The problem extends beyond school arrests. Richland 2 meted one or more out-of-school-suspensions to 9.6 percent of the 25,845 children attending its regular classrooms. That’s 2,487 young men and women ,kept out of school at least once during the school year. The district meted in-school suspensions (which are considered by some to be less-damaging to) 2,293 children — another 8.8 percent of students. Black children are the ones subjected to harsh discipline at higher levels than their white peers. One or more out-of-school suspensions were meted out to 12.7 percent of black children — 1,923 of them — while just 4.3 percent of white students were temporarily kept from learning; the district also meted in-school suspensions to 11.7 percent of black students — while only 4.3 percent of white students were subjected to such punishment.
As you would expect by now, overuse of suspensions is even worse when it comes to children in special ed ghettos. Richland 2 meted one or more out-of-school suspensions to 19.9 percent of the 3,069 children either covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That’s 610 young men and women already provided low-quality teaching and curricula denied education. The district meted in-school suspensions to another 17.4 percent of children in special ed ghettos. The good news, if you can call it that, is that the district didn’t subject any child in special ed to restraints or solitary confinement (the latter of which is called seclusion by those who don’t want to remind us that this is a technique used by prison systems).
As in the rest of the nation, young black men are the ones most-likely to be suspended. Richland meted out-of-school suspensions to 1,225 young black men — or 16 percent of them in regular classrooms — while just 6.4 percent of young white men peers were kept out of school. The district also meted out-of-school suspensions to 26.2 percent of young black men condemned to special ed, while keeping an almost-as-outrageous 17.2 of white male peers out of school. [The fact that young black men account for an eye-popping 41 percent of kids in special ed covered under IDEA makes clear that the district’s use of traditional school discipline and special ed exemplifies Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel Reschlys point that adults in schools end up labeling certain kids as troublemakers and incapable of learning because they think they are destined to end up that way.]
As for young black women? Richland 2 meted out-of-school suspensions to 9.3 percent of young black women in regular classrooms, more than three times the 2.2 percent suspension rate for white female peers. The district also meted out-of-school suspensions to a whopping 20.8 percent of young black women in special ed ghettos, versus a mere 3.8 percent of young white women in the same classrooms. Of course, Richland 2 is no different than school operators in the rest of American public education on this front.
Meanwhile there are many ways young children under Richland 2’s care can end up being suspended. Per the district’s student handbook, dress code violations are put under the catch-all of “disruptive behavior”, thus meriting suspension. Wearing any color of apparel that may be similar to that worn by gangs can also lead to suspension or expulsion, even if there is no corroborating evidence of gang activity that would be admitted into an actual court of law. A child who refuses to answer a question asked by a school leader or teacher during a locker search can also be disciplined. In fact, a child can be suspended based on the number of previous referrals to principal’s offices and other discipline code violations regardless of how serious they are.
Put simply, Field’s assault of the child, along with the failure of the teacher to use proper classroom management, stems from both Richland 2’s embrace of harsh traditional school discipline practices and arbitrary discipline codes that essentially criminalize being a child and all of the misbehaviors, no matter how mild, that come with being young. All of this in the name of school safety, improving child behavior, and bolstering student achievement. Yet as researchers such as Russell Skiba of Indiana University and John Wallace of University of Pittsburgh have demonstrated over and over again, there is no evidence that these practices leads to safer schools, better-behaved kids, and better academic performance. This isn’t surprising because the data has long ago shown that children are most-often suspended for so-called “disruptive behavior” which is arbitrarily determined by teachers and school leaders and therefore have little connection to safety, behavior, or academics. As Dropout Nation has noted time and time and time again, teachers and school leaders use traditional discipline approaches to avoid addressing underlying issues such as illiteracy that lead to children acting out.
The presence of law enforcement in schools is especially troubling because it allows for teachers and school leaders to avoid addressing the issues of children in their care properly. As University of Maryland researchers Chongmin Na and Denise Gottfredson determined in a 2011 study, there is little evidence that the presence of school cops lead to decreases in violent incidents or other forms of misbehavior. What does happen, as Na and Gottfredson points out, is that the presence of school cops do lead to an increase the percentage of kids referrals to law enforcement. School cops equal children being put onto the school-to-prison pipeline, and ultimately, on the path to poverty and prison. As seen in the case of the Spring Valley High student, the presence of law enforcement can also lead to children being choked, maimed, even murdered, all in the name of American public education.
These facts alone should lead reformers to call for all school operators, from traditional districts such as Richland 2 to charter school outfits such as Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy, to end the use of these harmful and unproductive school discipline practices. Especially when better approaches that address underlying learning issues and help kids understand the consequences of their misbehavior on their fellow students, can work so much better. There’s no reason why any reformer can condone the practices that almost-inevitably lead to incidents such as what happened at Spring Valley — even if they are done by school operators they favor.
Of course, your editor expects some reformers who favor these practices such as Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute to say that such calls are “demagoguery” (especially when mentioning their favored input), while some other reformers will continue to defend them on the grounds that some parents for various reasons favor them. [There will be those traditionalists who will do so, too. But that is to be expected. There’s also the fact that there are plenty of traditionalists who are demanding the end of these practices, and they deserve praise.] That those with a mission to build brighter futures for children can find ways to defend that which is wrong and unacceptable raises plenty of questions about where they really stand.