Spring Valley High School Resource Officer Ben Fields' decision to knock a defiant female student out of her desk, drag her across a classroom, and pin her against the floor—a horrific assault captured on video and widely shared on social media—was completely unjustified.
It was unjustified, no matter how much inappropriate behavior preceded it. It was unjustified, even if school authorities had every reason to expel the student from the classroom. It was unjustified, precisely because there is no conceivable circumstance in which it's okay for a cop to brutalize an unarmed, unthreatening teen girl.
But it isn't enough to criticize this one police officer for committing a terrible crime against a teen. We must also criticize the culture of misplaced fear about safety in schools—a culture that requires cops to patrol high school classrooms as if they were prisons.
The sheriff's office has asked the FBI to investigate the incident, and Fields is on leave while the authorities examine whether he broke any policies. He is entitled to a fair and judicious review of his actions, of course. But if he is somehow cleared of wrongdoing, it would not mean that his actions were correct. It would only mean that official policy is far too deferential to the men with guns in schools.
This isn't Fields' first run-in with controversy. According to The New York Times, a student who was expelled for "gang activity" sued the officer in November of 2013 for "recklessly and unfairly" accusing black students of being in gangs. This student was expelled after getting into a fight behind a store near the school. The case has not yet gone to trial.
Some students—black students—said Fields was tough but fair, and were surprised at what they saw in the video. Other students offered a less positive appraisal of the man's approach toward delinquency:
Nygel King, 16, another sophomore, said that Officer Fields "acted like a typical cop" in the hallways — "But never in a bad way," he said.
The video, he said, stunned him. "For one, she wasn't resisting at all," he said. "And two, I've never seen him be super-aggressive with another student."
But some of the students said that they had heard that Officer Fields had a reputation for treating students harshly when he was called to intervene in a skirmish or make an arrest. Several of them told stories, but about incidents they had only heard about, not personally seen. What it said about Officer Fields' record was not altogether clear: It is, perhaps, an immutable law of nature that an officer in a school will be treated, in some quarters, with a certain amount of suspicion.
The article refers to cops in schools as if they reflect some perfectly natural state of affairs—as if cops are just as indispensable as teachers, janitors, and principals. In fact, cops did not become a ubiquitous presence in public education until recently. While the term "school resource officer" first came into being in the 1950s, it wasn't until the '80s that schools began hiring cops en masse. Between the late '90s and 2007, the number of SROs nationwide increased to 19,000 (a 55 percent rise).
Do police officers decrease crime in schools? In some cases, sure. But schools are already very safe places. And in a very real sense, the involvement of SROs increases crime, since the mere presence of a cop often escalates a minor infraction of school rules into a criminal matter. It does this by definition, since the police are invariably involved, even in situations that should be resolved by competent administrators, counsellors, or parents.
Take the girl who wouldn't leave her desk at Spring Valley High School. Is she making trouble? Sure. Is she a criminal? No. But now she's been arrested anyway—the involvement of Officer Fields rendered this a foregone conclusion.
The girl should count herself lucky, I suppose, that she wasn't killed in the process. But we should expect better for the millions of young people compelled to attend public education in this country. We should not teach them, from a very early age, that small acts of defiance will be met with vastly disproportionate state-sanctioned force. We should not funnel these kids—many of them racially and socioeconomically disadvantaged—into the criminal justice system for making the kinds of mistakes that perfectly regular, well-adjusted kids have been making for centuries. And we should not pretend that public safety requires these trade-offs.