Recently, South Carolina schools were thrust into the national spotlight when a video depicting an encounter between a Richland County Sherriff’s Deputy and a 16-year-old African-American student went viral. The deputy, Ben Fields, has been widely criticized for using excessive force given that the student’s “offense” was using a cellphone in class. Others, however, believed Fields’ force was justified because the student ignored his command to leave the classroom. Current and former students claimed that Fields had a history of using unnecessary force and racist language in school, other students described Fields as friendly and professional. Fields was fired, and investigations continue.
What has been largely ignored in the local and national discussion of this troubling incident is the fact that it is a symptom of a more serious societal problem: the practice of using police officers to enforce school discipline, increased suspensions for minor infractions, higher student arrest rates, and even incarceration for violations of school policies. This has come to be known as the school-to-prison pipeline.
The effects of this pipeline are profound. School-related offenses such as using profanity, skipping class, having a cellphone, or insubordination are now regularly treated as crimes. Too often, instead of being disciplined “in-house” by school administrators, students, especially black students, are suspended, arrested, or jailed. Just one suspension increases a student’s likelihood of dropping out of school. Students who have been suspended or expelled are three times more likely to come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Students not in school have more time to get into trouble, and those who drop out of school have fewer career prospects and frequently turn to illegal ways of making money.
The school-to-prison pipeline grew out of the “zero-tolerance” policies of the 1980s. It gained momentum from school tragedies such as the Columbine High School Massacre in 1999. Consequently, schools developed strict measures for dealing with misconduct, and police officers began to be stationed in schools.
The result of these policies is a harsh and racially disparate school punishment system. Nationally, over 10 percent of secondary-school students have been subject to an out-of-school suspension — the rate more than doubles for African-American students. In South Carolina, male suspension rates are higher than the national average for every racial/ethnic group. Black students face a 26.1 percent risk of suspension in South Carolina secondary schools, and that leaps to more than 33 percent for black students with a physical or intellectual disability such as autism or a learning disorder.
Thus, except for being caught on video, the Spring Valley High School case is not as much of an outlier as it seems. Across the country, schools with police officers have nearly five times the arrests for disorderly conduct, even after controlling for factors like poverty. Last year in South Carolina, disturbing schools, disorderly conduct, and truancy were the third-, fourth- and sixth-most frequent offenses for which juveniles were referred to the juvenile justice system, surpassed only by assault and shoplifting.
Black juveniles also fare worse once they enter the criminal justice system. While African-Americans make up only 27.8 percent of South Carolina’s population, 66 percent of juveniles admitted to juvenile detention facilities are black. This racial gap is consistent with studies that show that black juveniles are perceived to be more “culpable,” i.e. more deserving of punishment, than their white counterparts.
What can we take away from recent events in Columbia? First, it is time to reconsider whether police officers should be used by the educational system to enforce violations of school behavior policies like skipping school, talking back to teachers or using cellphones. Second, we need to confront school disciplinary procedures that perpetuate the school-to-prison pipeline and its disproportionate impact on black children. Schools are places where children should be encouraged to learn and grow, without the risk of being locked up for their adolescent misbehavior. And that should be true regardless of the color of their skin.
John Blume is the Samuel F. Leibowitz Professor of Trial Techniques at Cornell Law School and is the Director of the school’s Capital Punishment and Juvenile Justice Clinics. He has been a long time practitioner in South Carolina and has argued many cases in both United States Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of South Carolina. Zoe Jones is a recent graduate of Cornell Law School and is currently the Fellowship Attorney for the Death Penalty Resource & Defense Center in Columbia, SC.