How to End the School-to-Prison Pipeline? Stop Treating Disabled and Minority Students as Criminals

The criminalization of simple disciplinary matters in American K-12 bears especially hard on disabled and minority students. In South Carolina, at long last, that pattern could be changing.
By David M. Perry,
(Photo: Flickr/stevendepolo)

Last October, a video of School Resource Officer (SRO) Ben Fields ripping a young African-American student from her desk and slamming her to the ground went viral, fueling another round of intense outrage at excessive use of force by government agents against African-American civilians. In South Carolina, where the incident took place, there were protests and counter-protests. Most major media outlets covered the affair, showing the video from multiple angles and debating whether to blame the student or the cop. Within a few days, Fields had been fired.

The man who fired him was Sherriff Leon Lott of Richland County. I met with Lott a few weeks ago in South Carolina to discuss the role of SROs and the problematic mission creep that has resulted in the widespread criminalization of children—especially those children already marginalized by race, disability, class, and other factors that help keep the "school-to-prison pipeline" running.

Lott told me that he had no choice but to fire Fields, and I was pleased to hear it. An officer who would do that to a student not only has no place in school, but has no place in law enforcement. But beyond holding Fields responsible, I asked him how we can avoid the next incident, rather than only reacting to the last one. The Spring Valley news cycle has long since faded, and I was hoping to find evidence of structural change.

Remarkably, South Carolina's leaders in education and law-enforcement are trying to accomplish just that. A few weeks ago, Molly Spearman, the superintendent of schools for South Carolina, released the recommendations of the "Safe Schools Task Force," a group of educators, parents, and law enforcement that Spearman had convened in the wake of Spring Valley to address the use of SROs. The task force's report, released earlier this month, coalesces around one simple principle: Stop calling the police for disciplinary reasons.

If this policy gets put into practice and succeeds in changing disciplinary culture in their schools, the results could be significant. There's a chance that South Carolina could narrow the school-to-prison pipeline and protect vulnerable students from abuse at the hands of law enforcement without eroding overall school safety.

Now we're in a situation where any kind of disciplinary infraction can be treated as a crime. The soaring rates of criminalization for children marginalized by race, class, and disability are a direct result. 

The violence in the Spring Valley video is terrible to watch. The young woman sits at her desk, passively refusing to get up, as Fields decides to act. He puts his arm around her upper body and pushes her onto her back, spins the desk around, then drags her out of it and across the floor. As she flails (an action that some Fields apologists claimed amounted to "hitting" or "assault" against the officer), he flips her into a prone restraint and handcuffs her. The shift from a non-compliant but entirely non-threatening confrontation to violence and potential criminalization takes about five seconds.

Sadly, these confrontations are all too common. A report last year from the Center for Public Integrity revealed that black students, Latino students, and disabled students (and especially people who are multiply marginalized by being disabled students of color) are criminalized at disturbingly high rates.

In what I have come to call the "cult of compliance," countless incidents begin not with criminal behavior, but with students who simply don't comply with rules, norms, or expectations. Kayleb Moon-Robinson, an autistic boy in Virginia, was criminalized for kicking a trashcan and later trying to leave his classroom with his peers. In Kentucky, a small Latino boy with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder was handcuffed and arrested for acting out in class. An autistic girl in Washington was handcuffed because she became upset when ordered to remove a favorite hoodie. In Wisconsin, a boy was thrown to the ground by officers after being kicked off a bus for yelling and being disrespectful to the driver. The cases often involve disability in some way, but not always. Gyasi Hughes was talking to an SRO in his Texas school in the aftermath of a fight. He wasn't being compliant, but nor was he a threat, when the officer grabbed him by the front of the throat and took him to the ground.

Spring Valley unfolded similarly. "The Spring Valley incident started with a girl who was using her phone, wasn't bothering nobody but herself. But it became a power struggle between her and the teacher," Lott told me. "The teacher couldn't handle it, so the teacher calls the assistant principal. The assistant principal comes in, he couldn't handle it. So what does he do? They call an SRO and say 'remove her from the class.'" Lott didn’t defend Fields' subsequent actions; indeed, he fired him. But Lott isn't wrong to argue that calling an SRO in the first place set events on the path to violence.

Lott told me about a similar incident in which a student with a disability decided to bounce a basketball in the corner while gym class was going on. The teachers, according to Lott, decided they had to get the student back into the class, but "he won't give the basketball up. The teachers try to take it from him, the coaches try to take it from him. Nobody can handle the kid, so what they do, they call the school resource officer. School resource officer gets there, goes to take the ball from him, and the kid attacks and actually hits the school resource officer. The school resource officer tazes him to stop that incident." The school was upset about the use of a TASER; for his part, Lott wants to know "why didn't [the teachers] just let him bounce the damn ball?"

The answer is mission creep. While SROs are part of an old program meant to build better relationships between law enforcement and communities, the era of  "broken-windows" policing led schools to rely on police officers to enforce discipline. Ironically, this was seen as a way to keep kids out of the criminal justice system. After the Columbine shootings in 1999, SROs got a new job: Defend schools against mass shootings. Zero-tolerance policies soon became the norm, as the work of Charles Bell shows, and then SROs had to enforce them. Now we're in a situation where any kind of disciplinary infraction can be treated as a crime. The violence of incidents such as Spring Valley and the soaring rates of criminalization for children marginalized by race, class, disability, and other factors, are a direct result.

That's why the new policy from South Carolina is such an important step in the other direction. The task force report defines three types of misconduct: behavioral misconduct (level 1), disruptive conduct (level 2), and criminal conduct (level 3). Whenever a child's behavior is criminal or potentially criminal, the school must call in the SRO. In all other circumstances, which the report details with examples, the school needs to follow its regular disciplinary norms. The report reads: "As law enforcement, the school resource officers should only be called when a student's behavior has exceeded the level of disruptive conduct as determined by school administration, based on district policy, or the student is engaging or has engaged in criminal conduct."

In an email, a spokesperson for the superintendent of schools wrote me: "The taskforce was convened to review our laws and regulations pertaining to school resource officers and how to improve the school climate between teachers, students, and law enforcement. We have gotten too dependent on simply calling law enforcement to address routine disciplinary issues. Instead, we want to work through these concerns with the school administration, student, and parents and develop a culture of mutual respect where all students are able to learn." That's a laudable goal. The proof will be when teachers stop calling the SROs in for students who exhibiting non-compliant behavior—I have my doubts about whether officers will ever be willing to just walk away from a disciplinary issue.

There's something interesting going on in South Carolina. It has been unusually swift in indicting officers caught shooting unarmed black men. It has a bill pending that would mandate ambulances be used to transport non-violent individuals in mental-health crisis instead of police cars. There's no doubt that using police as first responders to people with disabilities in crisis leads to needless violence, criminalization, and often death. Now, with its new SRO policy, South Carolina is trying to roll back another kind of mission creep. That's going to be good for both cops and citizens of South Carolina. America should take note.