Officer Ben Fields forcibly removes a student from a classroom at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C.
YouTube screenshot

The #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh in Columbia, S.C., raises critical issues regarding school safety and the presence of law enforcement in the classroom. Beyond the initial shock over the school resource officer's handling of the situation are legitimate questions about whether he should have been there in the first place and, moreover, how police in a school should be engaging the school's student population.

Many school disciplinary protocols dictate that resource officers like Ben Fields become involved in classroom situations at the behest of the teacher in charge. Based on early reports, that appears to be how Officer Fields came to be in the classroom in the video. But while school safety and resource officers are meant to increase student and teacher protection, the recent horrific video may be more of an example of how some teachers are relying on law enforcement in schools as disciplinarians and enforcement muscle, when that is neither their purpose nor their role in the public school setting.

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The primary function of school resource and safety officers is to promote safe schools and safe students. They are not present to serve as “backup” for teachers who are having a rough time controlling their classrooms or simply to intimidate students into good behavior. They would be more responsible in the event of a threat to the school environment, like a school shooter, for example. Their role isn’t related to corrective discipline; rather, in the very few instances that call for direct involvement with students, they are responsible for ensuring that students are protected against any threat to their safety.

In fact, these officers should be taking action only in the most extreme scenarios to avoid or to prevent physical harm from befalling any student. While we admittedly do not have all the facts surrounding the incident at Spring Valley High School, what Richland County, S.C., representatives have said about the student being "a disruption to the class's learning" does not seem to rise to a level requiring resource-officer intervention.

More and more often, our public schools are becoming eerily similar in nature and practice to "mini-camps," reminiscent of prisons. Students are made to walk silently in line through the hallways, and instructed on when and to whom they may speak. On the surface these measures may seem benign, if not even helpful in terms of keeping order. But when considered in light of the draconian punishments for students who fail to adhere to the stringent rules, along with the consistent presence of uniformed (and, in some cases, armed) guards—many of whom are in schools that have metal detectors upon entry—it all seems frightening for a young person to process.

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Regardless of the smile a cop might attach to a morning greeting, the optics surrounding a police officer (or his functional equivalent) in schools where the students may already have suspicions of law enforcement are more likely to engender feelings of apprehension and discomfort than of safety and protection.

This is also the first step in advancing the school-to-prison pipeline. We've seen how disparate discipline along racial lines has, across the country, plagued a number of school districts. Involving police officers in classroom disciplinary matters that should normally be the obligation of a teacher to handle or of a counselor to mediate immediately opens the door to the possible arrest of a student and the beginning of a downward spiral that may involve jail, recidivism and other obstacles to progress. 

We must think carefully about how we allow law enforcement to engage with schools in our communities. This begins with arming ourselves with information specific to our particular schools and school districts. For example, to what extent does law enforcement have a presence at a local school? Do those officials have arrest powers? Does the school system allow them to carry weapons? What are the circumstances under which law enforcement can get involved with a student? These are the types of questions that should be discussed with locally elected officials like a city council or school board.

It may be time to rethink the presence of law enforcement in schools. At a minimum, this incident in South Carolina should serve as a call for students, parents and administrators alike to review, revisit and, where needed, revise policies and protocols related to resource officers and how they are used around our children. The last thing any of us should be worried about is whether those charged with protecting us from danger ultimately pose the biggest threat to our safety.

Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a civil rights trial attorney, legal analyst and former Brooklyn, N.Y., prosecutor. He is also a professor of criminal justice at Berkeley College in New York. Follow him on Twitter