Video Incident Raises Questions about School Officers’ Role

COLUMBIA, SC — The video of a school resource officer pulling a female student out of her desk at Spring Valley High in Columbia is raising questions about the role of SROs. The video has been seen nationwide, showing Richland County Sheriff’s Department Senior Deputy Ben Fields pull the student out of her desk and across the floor. Sheriff Leon Lott fired Fields for not following procedures.

Fields had been called to the classroom after the girl refused to obey the teacher’s and an administrator’s orders for her to leave for having used her cell phone during class.

Josh Gupta-Kagan, a law professor at the University of South Carolina who teaches juvenile justice and writes on children’s welfare issues, says, “What the federal government has said is that school resource officers are there for security situations. If, God forbid, there’s another Columbine or Newtown situation they’re there for that. If there’s a situation that’s turning violent between students, they’re there for that. But they’re not to be there for routine school discipline.”

He says this incident sure looks like the SRO crossed the line and was asked to handle routine classroom discipline. “When I hear these questions, ‘Well, what should the school have done?’ I’m also tempted to say, ‘Well, what did we do a generation ago?’ This isn’t the first child that’s been disobedient. And children these days are not worse than children before. Juvenile crime is way down from when I was a teenager. Juvenile crime peaked in the early to mid-1990s. It’s way down now,” he says.

He says another problem is the state’s “disturbing schools” law, which he says is too broad and vague. It says it’s against the law, “for any person willfully or unnecessarily to interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college in this state.”

He says about 1,200 students are sent to juvenile court every year in SC for disturbing schools.

“There are a number of studies on this,” he says. “First, when we put school resource officers in schools, the number of arrests go up. So even controlling for demographic differences and crime rates, the more police officers we have in school, the more arrests we’re going to have. So that shouldn’t be all that surprising. The next thing that happens is that when more kids are arrested and sent to juvenile court on charges like disturbing schools, that itself has some bad impacts. Juvenile court is both expensive to the state and has bad impacts on the kids who are sent there. There are a number of studies that show they’re less likely to graduate high school.”

Fellow USC law professor Seth Stoughton, a former police officer, says, “The role of school resource officers, and particularly when they should be using their criminal enforcement authority, needs to be very clearly established for teachers, for school administrators and other officials, and for the officers themselves. That doesn’t necessarily need to come from the legislature. It can come from a cooperative agreement between the sheriff’s department and the school district, for example, with the input from the community.”

State education superintendent Molly Spearman plans to create a task force of teachers, law enforcement, and parents to talk about the best practices for student discipline and what policies and procedures should govern SROs.

 

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