How Did They Treat You?

How Did They Treat You?

By Jennifer Farmer

In a recent TED talk, Color blind or color brave, Mellody Hobson of Ariel Investments relayed her mother’s questioning, “How did they treat you?” upon returning from a birthday party when she was just 7-years-old. Her mother wondered if she’d been treated fairly in a space where she was the only African American child present.

It’s a question parents of color ask our children because we fear for their safety and we understand that America is not a post-racial society. It’s a question we should also ask when there are armed guards -- including school resource officers -- in schools.

In schools, children of color can be treated more harshly and more severely than other students for the same offenses. Yesterday, Deputy Ben Fields, who is employed as a school resource officer at Spring Valley High in Richland County, South Carolina, grabbed a female student, put his arm around her throat and upper body, flipped her over while she was still seated, and then dragged her across the room. It is morally unacceptable to handle students in such a violent manner and police should help deescalate disputes, not resort to violence.

When another student rightly questioned Deputy Fields over his treatment of the female classmate, the student was threatened with arrest. In the end, two students were indeed arrested; the young woman who was assaulted and an unidentified male student.

Given Deputy Fields’ prior record, which includes being a defendant in a lawsuit for violating the civil rights of another Spring Valley student, it’s inconceivable he was permitted to remain on campus. The only way to stop this behavior is to hold police and school officials accountable.

In 2014, the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released guidance on racism and discipline and asserted, among other things, that school officials are responsible for how discipline is administered on their campuses. It’s not enough to issue statements expressing outrage and concern. The school district knew Fields’ past and they too should be held accountable.

While the notion of police in schools may conjure up thoughts of safety, armed guards, including school resource officers and police officers, can wrongly become involved in school disciplinary matters.

Of course this is not an isolated incident; not for Richland County or the nation.

Earlier this year, 17-year-old Brittany Overstreet was body-slammed and knocked unconscious by a school resource officer in her Tampa, Fla. school. Brittany was then charged with the all-encompassing and often misleading “resisting arrest,” charges that were later dropped. Diamond Neal was assaulted by an officer in her Baltimore school and required 10 stitches after the attack. The officer in that case was later charged with stealing from students. In McKinney, Texas, Officer Eric Casebolt, grabbed 15-year-old Dejerria Becton by her hair, threw her on the ground and then straddled her small body – all while she was wearing a bikini. These are examples of the girls whose names we know. There are countless others who are victimized by police whose names we cannot recite because we have yet to hear their stories.

In recent months, the over-policing and criminalization of girls has gained more awareness through a number of news and issue reports from the African American Policy Forum (Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Over-policed and Underprotected), Tanzina Vega’s December 2014 story, Schools’ Discipline for Girls Differs by Race and Hue, and others. These and other reports validate the lived experiences of Black girls who are being abused in and out of schools.

In schools, as in the rest of the community, Black women and girls are labeled loud, unruly, angry and disruptive. These unfair stereotypes affect how our children are treated in schools, and beyond.

All students deserve the benefit of adult concern over their well-being and safety. This is something seemingly withheld from Black girls. This requires collective admonishment and reproach. We should all be asking, “How did they treat you?” And when we find our children are mistreated there are resources to help. Parents can visit www.safequalityschools.org for more information or contact groups such as Advancement Project, the NAACP LDF, African American Policy Forum and others who are working to put an end to the victimization and over-criminalization of youth in schools.