An educator's response to the brutal South Carolina student arrest video

Another cop video went viral yesterday. This one shows a white sheriff’s deputy in South Carolina arresting a 16-year-old black girl who was reportedly caught on her phone during algebra class. The cop tips her chair and desk over backward (with her in it), drags her across the floor to the front of the class, handcuffs her, and arrests her.

Then, according to The New York Times, deputy Ben Fields went on to arrest a second student who had the audacity to express indignation. This student, Niya Kenny, 18, went on a local TV station:

"'I was crying, like literally screaming, crying like a baby,' Ms. Kenny told WLTX. 'I’d never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl.' As she protested, she said, 'he said, "Since you’ve got so much to say, you’re coming, too."'"

Where to start? This went wrong on so many levels.

Leaving aside, for the moment, the fact that this deputy has already “been the subject of two federal lawsuits about his conduct in the past,” as the Times reports. (“A jury found in his favor in one, and the other is pending,” says the Times.)

And leaving aside the fact one student gave a sworn affidavit stating that he witnessed in 2013 the deputy calling other students the n-word.

And leaving aside the fact that rather than curtailing Field’s interactions with students, the high school has him assistant coaching the football team.

And leaving aside the fact that this is one of the most misguided, defensive, heavy-handed, authoritarian understandings of education that I’ve encountered in a while, as Fields’s boss told media at a news conference: “Even though she was wrong for disturbing the class, even though she refused to abide by the directions of the teacher, the school administrator and also the verbal commands of our deputy, I’m looking at what our deputy did.”

Which, I realize, is a lot to leave aside since it points to huge systemic problems all along the way.

But can we look at the origins of this conflict, too? What the hell was this teacher’s problem that she or he allowed this to become a conflict in the first place?

Until recently, I was an assistant professor at Morgan State University and at least once a week I had to ask a student to put away a phone. I’m friends with middle school teachers, high school teachers, college teachers in Baltimore and around the country—and trust me, if you’re unwise enough to bring up students’ cellphones, they’ll kvetch for hours. (It’s in the top three chew-your-ear-off topics for educators, along with grammar and the baggy-pants boys/skimpily clad girls that seem to get folks’ goat.)

This is a fact: Students use cellphones; teachers wish they didn’t.

But here’s what most of us do: opt for a consequence where the punishment equals the crime (it is, after all, a fairly minor infraction). We call a student out. We tell a student to put away their phone. We remind them that they signed a statement at the beginning of class about the cellphone policy. We make them put their cellphones face-down on the desk at the beginning of class. We make them stay behind at the end of class for a serious talking-to. We threaten to dock their grade. We sometimes do dock their grade. And plenty of times, we simply ignore the fucking phone because it is more disruptive to the learning environment to mis-focus attention on a kid texting—the equivalent, I suppose of an olden-days note-passing—than to interrupt a lecture or discussion with an admonishment.

We nag and cajole and wring our hands, but we do not call administrators and cops into the classroom because we are so worried about "discipline" and "being disrespected" and "laying down the law"—a major problem with having the "law" in way too close a proximity at schools. (Check back with City Paper in the days ahead for more coverage of the issue of cops in schools here in Baltimore.)

I mean, really? We are calling sheriff's deputies into classrooms because we’re mad at a kid who used her cellphone? And because we wanted her out and she wouldn’t go? (Again, a philosophically and pedagogically problematic solution for true educators who ought to be committed to helping students learn by keeping them in the classroom and in school; see Open Society Institute-Baltimore’s decade-long fight against suspensions.)

The South Carolina deputy’s behavior on the video was horrific and I certainly don’t mean to downplay it or the role race might have played in his actions. (Indeed, whatever further investigation reveals, I’m hard-pressed to imagine a single word or action on the part of a 16-year-old nonviolent algebra student that might justify Deputy Fields’s response.) But I’m suggesting we ought to widen the net of those culpable for escalating a mundane situation: the teacher and administrator.

“Please put your phone away—and talk to me after class,” would likely be sufficient.

Failing that, ignore the kid; you’ve got a class to teach.

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