By now most readers will have already seen the cell phone video1 that caught national attention showing “Officer Slam” – a.k.a Senior Deputy Ben Fields – flipping, body-slamming and arresting an unnamed student at Spring Valley High in Columbia, South Carolina. Numerous #BlackLivesMatter activists have picked up on this issue as yet another example of police brutality, which it undoubtedly is. While this paper has carried a number of articles2 on the Black Lives Matter movement, usually pertaining to its strategic and long-term perspectives, the questions raised at Spring Valley High force us to ask a deeper question than Fields’ misconduct: why was he there to begin with?
Placing dedicated police officers (called School Resource Officers or SROs) is a recent phenomenon, with only a few K-12 schools experimenting with the idea in the mid-20th century. The trend soared after the Columbine massacre, with parents and school officials groping for any measure they could to make schools safer – irrespective of whether it actually accomplished that goal or even necessarily made sense. Hence metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs and cops. While violent crime rates in the U.S. have steadily fallen for decades and schools are statistically the safest place for children3, public perception – shaped by a fear-mongering bourgeois media – is the opposite. This provides a favorable climate for ‘law-and-order’ forces to press a reactionary agenda.
The formal justification here is that SROs are a preventative measure – in fact FBI Director James Comey complained at a recent police chief convention in Chicago that the proliferation of videos like the one mentioned above and the social movement associated with them are making cops hesitant to get out there and “do the work that prevents violent crime”.4 But crime prevention as such is not the main role of police. In any class society there must be an armed wing of the state using force to uphold its property relations. Under feudalism the knight and the reeve guarded the landed fief against bandits while making sure the peasantry remembered its place in the system; under capitalism the police defend capitalist private ownership of the means of production. Suppression of crime is their secondary role, but even then, suppression is not the same as prevention. One involves prosecution after the fact while the other can’t be accomplished without changing the material conditions that generate most criminal acts.
Admittedly SROs do suppress a lot of crime in schools… by criminalizing youth. In Delaware for example, a whopping 90 percent of school arrests are for misdemeanors5 like disorderly conduct (talking back to a teacher), swearing or having a “disruptive appearance.” Similar figures can be found elsewhere. The authoritarian approach to misbehavior leads teachers and administrators to solve conflicts using police force rather than in the classroom. The reliance on SROs, metal detectors, drug-sniffing dogs, surveillance cameras and “zero tolerance” policies damages effective education – school as a holding pen, an alienated and alienating place, not an institution of growth belonging to students and school staff. A disproportionate number of schools using SROs have a non-white majority student body and a large number of students from low income households.
The school-to-prison pipeline can’t be dismantled without consistent campaigning to end school resource officer programs, diverting the resources used for them toward a full complement of teachers, counselors and school psychologists, and positive behavior intervention techniques like restorative justice.6 Education workers should be at the forefront here, campaigning to bring their unions on board – which too often dodge the question of SROs even where they otherwise do admirable social justice work in the schools.7
- For examples, see the editorial statement “After Baltimore, What?” (http://red-party.com/after-baltimore-what/) or my article “#BlackLivesMatter and the Working Class” (http://red-party.com/blacklivesmatter-and-the-working-class/)
- See agitation from the National Education Association, which organizes 3 million education workers (http://neatoday.org/2015/01/05/school-prison-pipeline-time-shut/) or the Chicago Teachers Union’s pledge to fight for restrictions on SROs in its contract negotiations with Chicago Public Schools.