Are schools too quick to turn student disturbances into criminal matters?

Schools around the country have been wrestling with that issue in recent years, including whether to have police in schools, and if so, when to use them.

A lawsuit that has been playing out in South Carolina offers a powerful example of the systemic issues involved.

The story started in 2015, after a student captured video on her cellphone of a white school resource officer violently flipping over a Black student in her desk and dragging her across the room before arresting her.

The video of the moment went viral, and the incident was polarizing. At the school where it happened, Spring Valley High School, some students held rallies in support of the campus officer while others held rallies against police presence in schools. And the viral video became a talking point on cable news, with different spins depending on the political leaning of the network — either to defend the school officer for enforcing order or to raise questions about why police seem to be more quickly called in about behavior by Black students than white ones.

What had this student done to get arrested? She declined to leave the classroom after her teacher asked her to hand over her cell phone (and it turns out she didn’t have her cell phone). Authorities ended up also arresting the student who filmed the scene, Niya Kenny.

A law in South Carolina long held that a student can be arrested for “disturbing” school. In other words, if a teacher feels a student is acting out in class, that could lead to time in a juvenile detention center.

Critics of this law say it is unconstitutionally vague and that it too quickly brings the criminal justice system into school settings. Opponents of the measure also say that in practice, it has been deployed far more frequently to punish students of color than white students. In fact, in the period from 2015 to 2020, Black students were charged under the South Carolina disorderly conduct law at a rate roughly seven times of their white peers.

When activist Vivian Anderson first saw that classroom video when it went viral, she decided to uproot her life in Brooklyn and move to Columbia, South Carolina, where the incident took place. And she started a nonprofit, called EveryBlackGirl, Inc., that advocates for Black girls like the ones at the center of this story.

Part of Anderson’s work has been to try to get rid of the Disturbing Schools law, by supporting a lawsuit against the measure filed by Kenny, the student who filmed the incident, and a group called the Carolina Youth Action Project.

Anderson is also at the center of a documentary film called On These Grounds, available on popular streaming services, that tells the story of this violent moment in a classroom and the subsequent fight for change. The film is made as a work of advocacy, by the group Represent Justice, but it goes out of its way to try to understand the views of all the parties involved, including the campus resource officer, Ben Fields.

In a powerful scene in the film, for instance, Anderson sat down with the officer to hear his side of the story and to ask him why he never apologized for the level of aggression used. The school system ended up firing Fields over the incident for what his superiors called excessive use of force, but after an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, no charges were filed against him. He maintains that he followed established procedures and that the student was resisting.

For Anderson, the story is not about the behavior of one officer, but about the bigger systems at play that led to the situation of a teacher calling in an officer for a minor classroom behavior issue.

And she and the students recently won a victory in that larger fight. In February, a federal appeals court struck down the disturbing schools law, as well as another law that prohibits disorderly or “boisterous” conduct or profane language within earshot of a school, agreeing with plaintiffs and a lower circuit court that they were unconstitutionally vague.

“Our primary question is whether the challenged laws give students fair warning about what expressive behaviors may expose them to criminal penalties and contain sufficient guardrails to prevent arbitrary or discriminatory enforcement,” wrote circuit judge Toby Heytens, in the ruling. “Like the district court, we hold the answer is no.”

EdSurge sat down with Anderson to talk about the issues, and how she hopes the documentary can become a starting point for schools to talk through issues of the role of police in schools (including through a set of resources recently released by the filmmakers).

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What was it like to sit down and interview the school resource officer at the center of this incident?

Vivian Anderson: Yeah, it’s a lot of emotions going through it. I remember calling [the students] and letting them know that I was going to be sitting down talking to him because I know that depending on how a conversation goes, folks can be like, ‘Oh, is she on his side?’ You know, people have a way of making things a side.

One of the things about when the directors of the documentary spoke to me about it, what they said was, instead of making a film that says, ‘This is what you should think,’ the whole idea is to make it informative, to put all the information out there. And without him, all the information wouldn’t have been out there.

And the bigger picture was this conversation needed to take place because it’s one of the core tenants of restorative justice. How do we have this most difficult conversation where the person I’m sitting here talking to is somebody who’s harmed somebody I love — harmed a young person. But do we just stop it there, or do we try to reach that person so there can be a shift in behavior — so there can be a shift and awareness? So even just that conversation may have struck somebody and had them look at things differently.

Do you feel like he changed his thinking in some way over the course of making the film?

There were many, many times when I’m like, ‘OK, we’re going somewhere,’ because we worked together for a year. We’re still in communication.

But if you’re the only one who’s [making these arguments in his life]. You saw the documentary, so you know he had a whole group of people telling him, ‘You were right.’

Did it change your view at all or thinking on these issues?

No. I think what it’s done is it made me more intentional around working with School Resource Officers. It gave me more context and more direction on how to move forward with the police-free schools campaign. Because I’m still very clear that officers should not be in schools. It has me constantly reminding myself to work with human beings, not human behavior. And so if I can keep seeing the human inside of everybody to keep moving in that way, because the same grace and mercy that I’ve been given that I share with children, I get to see where’s the harm that’s happened to this person that they could harm another human that way. So it just challenged me to do more work. It challenged me to go deeper.

How do you hope this film is used in an education setting?

We’re working with educators and talking about school culture and safety and nurturing, and what do thriving schools look like? We’re using it to actually create dialogue. Some folks have done community conversations with it.

And we’ve had folks traveling to really look at, What does it mean when we say creating thriving school environments? What do we mean when we say police-free schools? What do we mean when we say increased mental health and awareness in schools? What does that mean? And really having people take deep dives into those conversations so we can create safe, nurturing, thriving, liberatory school environments.

To hear the entire conversation, listen to the episode.

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