Over a Cell Phone? When School Officials Treat Black Kids Like Criminals

Spring Valley High School

Over a Cell Phone? When School Officials Treat Black Kids Like Criminals

Nothing she did could have warranted such violence.

Published October 27, 2015

I remember my first week teaching 8th grade social studies and 10th grade English at an inner city high school in Atlanta, Ga., years ago. After attending a mostly white suburban public high school in Florida and a mostly white liberal arts college in New Hampshire, I was excited about the idea of teaching kids who looked like me and weren't as privileged as my elite classmates.

Admittedly, the first few days were difficult, and I realized that most of my energy and attention was dedicated to discipline instead of academics. It was a culture shock for me, nothing like my own high school experience. My students came to class stressed out, often hungry and in need of far more social services than I could provide in a one-hour classroom setting. I lost my temper once with a particularly unruly student, and the other students mocked me for it.

It was hard work, but kids are kids, and I never stopped believing in the kids in my classes. That's why it's disturbing to see elements in our society moving rapidly toward the criminalization of children and the demonization of young students of color as throwaway thugs. We saw this in McKinney, Texas, when a white police officer assaulted a Black girl at a pool party this summer, and we're seeing it again now at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina.

Imagine the outrage that would follow if a video emerged of a police officer walking into a classroom and slamming a quiet-looking white teenage girl named Amber and dragging her on the floor to handcuff her. And all for the "crime" of pulling out her cell phone during math class. But when this actually happened to a Black girl in South Carolina this week, some commentators questioned what the girl did to provoke the assault.

“We don’t know what happened. You weren’t sitting in the room," CNN anchor Don Lemon told his colleague Sunny Hostin on CNN Monday night. Lemon said he couldn't express an opinion based on the video without knowing all the facts.  

It's understandable for a journalist to want to gather the facts before speaking, but Lemon was wrong here. Nothing this girl did or could have done would justify the behavior by the school resource officer, Ben Fields, who assaulted her. Remember, Dylann Roof, who murdered nine people at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, was treated more professionally by law enforcement authorities than this schoolgirl was.

“There is no justification whatsoever for treating a child like this," Victoria Middleton, the executive director for the South Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, told the New York Times. That point should be obvious, and yet some Americans are willing to accept this type of injustice as long as it doesn't directly affect them. Regardless of your race, if your child were assaulted in school by a police officer, you would demand accountability as well.

Thank goodness for the video. If there hadn't been a video, who would have believed this young Black girl's account against the word of a white police officer? Without the video, the world would never have known what happened, Officer Fields would never have been placed on administrative leave, and the media would never have uncovered past allegations charging him with excessive force.

The U.S. Department of Justice has opened an investigation into the Spring Valley incident, and surely some will use this pending inquiry as an excuse to avoid or delay answering important questions about the role of police officers and school officials interacting with teenagers of color.

We already know there's a problem. Black students are three and a half times as likely to be suspended or expelled than their white peers. And in the south, the situation is particularly grim. African-Americans made up just 24 percent of the students in Southern school districts studied in a report released this year but 55 percent of students who were suspended.

This is not just a problem for Black America. It's a problem for America. When society's leaders endorse police tactics of violent confrontation instead of calm negotiation, it teaches a lesson to our young people that adults don't respect peaceful resolution of our differences. And when African-American high school students grow up in a culture where they are not treated equally, it makes it difficult for them to pledge their allegiance to a country that purports to deliver "justice for all."

Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes commentary for BET.com each week.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Tony Robinson Jr.)

Written by Keith Boykin


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