(Reuters) - The violent arrest of a black female student by a white police officer at a South Carolina high school has reignited concerns that the proliferation of cops in U.S. schools can criminalize behavior once handled more quietly by school officials.
Almost 31,000 “school resource officers” or other law enforcement officers are stationed at U.S. public schools, with another 13,060 sworn law enforcement officers spending at least part of their time at schools, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
Americans have grown accustomed to the presence of armed and uniformed officers in schools since the 1999 Columbine High School massacre and numerous school shootings since.
But the viral video of the officer dragging the student from her chair, tossing her to the floor and arresting her for refusing to leave the room underscored the reality that many schools rely on police to do more than protect students from outside threats.
Ben Fields, the officer involved in Monday’s incident in Columbia, South Carolina, has been fired, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said on Wednesday.
“Everybody understands that in case of danger there may be times when we need and want officers in the school, but stationing them there on a permanent basis can lead to over-disciplining, over-criminalizing the misbehavior of children,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the South Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, a prominent civil liberties group.
The ACLU and other officials tracking the use of police in schools bemoan what they call a “school-to-prison pipeline” that prioritizes incarceration over education, especially for at-risk or minority students.
Federal data shows that black students are more than twice as likely to be arrested in school as white students. Black students represent 16 percent of enrollment but account for 31 percent of school-related arrests, according to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. White students represent 51 percent of enrollment but 39 percent of arrests.
Police involvement with schools dates back to the 1950s but gained prominence in the 1980s with community policing efforts to prevent the spread of drugs by educating students.
Protecting children became paramount after Columbine, where two students shot dead 12 fellow students and a teacher before committing suicide, and more recent events such as the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, where a gunman killed 20 children, six adults and himself.
As the police presence in education has grown, schools have called on officers to deal with fights, students disrupting classes and other issues formerly handled by administrators.
In an incident in Northern California on Monday also receiving attention online and on television, an officer was on hand to arrest three teen-aged boys after a brawl over a girl led to the school’s principal being flipped to the ground.
Some 41 percent of U.S. public schools have school resource officers or other law enforcement officers stationed on campus, with 16 percent having them full time, according to data from the Department of Education. Officers were most commonly assigned to high schools, with 65 percent having one present at least part of the time.
Jim Pasco, executive director of the National Fraternal Order of Police, said the police are in schools because dangerous situations apart from outside shooters sometimes arise, including gang and drug activity, he said.
But that does not mean teachers should leave everything to the cops, said Pasco, whose group is the country’s largest police organization with more than 335,000 members.
“Police aren’t there to supplant the traditional and appropriate role of teachers,” he said.
In South Carolina, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department have opened a civil rights probe into the arrest by Fields at Spring Valley High School. Fields could not be reached for comment.
The Richland Two Black Parents Association said discriminatory practices by the school district, including suspending and expelling large numbers of African-American students, have been in place for years.
“We don’t want this to be about just this officer,” said Stephen Gilchrist, a founding member of the year-old association with 5,700 members. “There is much more going on that has helped create a culture of discrimination.”Richland County school officials promised on Tuesday they would reinforce training about when faculty should call on school resource officers.
Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the School Safety Advocacy Council, which focuses on school safety training and assessments, said schools are turning more to on-site police to handle discipline, resulting in kids being charged with crimes.
Another factor is the practice of zero tolerance, which rose to prominence during the fight against drugs.
“We’ve become zero-tolerant crazy,” said Lavarello, a former school resource officer. He added, “Incarcerating kids at young ages is not an effective method of changing behaviors.”
Education officials and experts said schools and the police they work with need to clearly delineate responsibilities, and the police should not handle discipline historically handled by the schools. Arresting younger children can put them on a bad path, raising the likelihood they will repeat grades, drop out or get stuck in the juvenile justice system.
Lott said he shared concerns about whether Fields should have been called in the first place. “We don’t need to arrest these students, we need to keep them in school,” he said.
“If students are misbehaving in classrooms, the fix is not having a police officer on campus,” said Michael Thompson, director of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which provides state and local policymakers with data and recommendations to increase public safety.
Studies on police presence in schools are mixed, according to a 2013 report prepared for Congress. Some showed that children in schools with school resource officers might be more likely to be arrested for low-level offenses while others indicated the officers can deter students from committing assaults or bringing weapons to school.
Some education officials feel the tide may be turning as more school systems are adding counselors and overhauling codes of conduct to head off problems before the police are called in.
In Florida, Miami Dade county rolled out a system to handle disruptive students which dumped out-of-school suspensions.
Reporting by Ben Klayman in Detroit, Scott Malone in Boston, David Adams in Miami, Curtis Skinner in San Francisco, Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina and Greg Lacour in Columbia, South Carolina; Editing by Edward Tobin and James Dalgleish