Rhetoric and the Rise of the Prison Educational Complex

We hear this constantly, but fail to process it when it comes to dissecting our preconceived notions or personal impressions:  “There are two sides to every story.” Indeed there are and when the story gets caught up in the 24 hour news cycle the gears of the mechanism make a distinct noise. The noise is louder and louder by the day until another cog in the great news beast shifts and we can focus on that noise instead.  And so it goes.  

I’m not going to feed the machine, but I am going to open it up and tinker a bit.

Richland County Sheriff's Deputy Ben Fields

Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields

By nature, I am very slow to commit to a story emotionally. I suppose this is helpful when I am examining the narrative arc.  When I started this article,  I had the impression that the story of a 16 year old black girl who was roughed up by a beefy white deputy would likely be contrasted against the recent onslaught of “blue on black” crime. That’s what it is, make no bones about it. Assault is assault no matter the uniform. How we choose to justify this is our responsibility to examine. It’s easy to toe a line and point a finger. To get mad. I was repulsed by the video of that officer dragging that little girl, desk and all. That’s emotion and not constructive. If anything demonstrates that, it’s the behavior of Deputy Fields.  

Let’s take a closer look at Spring Valley High. What we all know about this predominantly black high school in South Carolina (a state whose most recent viral news had to do with the aggressive display of the stars and bars by white residents of the state, which was prompted by the removal of a Confederate flag from the state capitol and the arrest of the black female activist, an incident which was in it’s turn prompted by the shooting of nine African American church goers by a radicalized racist…see what I mean ) likely comes from the great news monster, so I’m not going to put you through that again.  We know about the racial divides. We know about the statistics and geography.  Those are cold facts to be examined like a corpse upon a table. But this is not a cold topic. If the physician is to know it’s patient, this is the screaming schizophrenic rage of America’s recent past and prejudice. Our hypocrisy.

I interviewed a current student, who I will call “Beth,” and as a journalist, I have a responsibility to ensure that she receives her education undisturbed. If Beth’s real name were to be released, it would be “out there.”  As a minor, her impressions are the impressions of a person who is afforded some protection. She may not understand that what she says now and in the current atmosphere may be taken out of context. It is my job, as a person in position of authority, to proceed with that in mind. I’m sure that the three tiered approach to dealing with an unruly student was put in place for this reason as well. Beth shared her perspective as a student and there were some things about our conversation that left me troubled.

svalley-statsWhen a student disrupts a class there is a protocol that is followed. The teacher issues a warning. The specific nature of the warning and the parameters that demand warnings are left to the judgement of the teacher to determine. If this warning fails, an administrator (principal, vice principal, etc) will be summoned and will issue a secondary warning. If this warning remains unheeded it is up to the discretion of the administrator to decide whether or not to take it to the next level and have an SRO (who is a fully deputized police officer in a lot of cases) step in to address the situation. Again, it is left to the judgement of the authority figure to decide how to proceed.

This brings us to a very important pause in our examination. For an officer of the law, and an SRO in particular, what is the difference between assessing threat in the instance of an unarmed minor and a fully acknowledged under law adult? What is the policy for dealing with a minor who will be processed by the courts in a manner respecting their age. Is there no policy in place for handling the arrest with similar delicacy? I understand that tempers can run high and children can be a handful but that’s why these situations are handled by trained individuals who are best equipped to deal with it delicately. Or so we would hope.

I think we can all agree that “delicacy” is the last word that would describe Deputy Fields approach to diffusing this situation. Now, let me proceed, but with utmost care. No doubt Deputy Fields behaved in a manner that is unworthy of his badge. His actions were criminal in their force. But the policies in place allowed him to feel that his actions were in proportion to the situation. Let’s dance very carefully near the subject of the “militarization of police force.”

Deputy Fields is conducting his work in a post-Columbine, post-Sandy Hook world, where children are viewed as a real and present danger as well as in real and present danger. “Student” can become “enemy.”  Police officers are meant to stand between two worlds and make their best judgements. On the one hand, be prepared for violent attack. On the other, protect the educational environment and preserve the peace. Gone are the days when an officer did not also have to feel like a soldier, even in a school. In addition to this, we must consider the individual emotional state and temperament of the deputy and the attitude of his potential perpetrator.

South Carolina has already subjected to scrutiny because of its acquisition of tactical military equipment. In 2014, Captain Chris Cowan, a department spokesperson at the time of the interview for the Richland County Sherrif’s Department made a statement to the New York Times that such gear allows the department to “…stay in step with the criminals who are arming themselves more heavily every day.” In November of 2003, a S.W.A.T raid was conducted on Goose Creek High School. The incident was recorded. When Officer Friendly looks more like Master Chief from Halo it’s time to ask ourselves some sensitive questions.    

That Deputy Fields failed to do his work in a manner befitting his authority is not a question. It is a an undeniable fact, one only undeniable because of the presence of cameras in the classroom. Which leads me to my next point. In a nation where children can be just as dangerous as adults, 2.2 million individuals are incarcerated in for-profit prisons, and ideological wars are waged in real time on the 24 hour news cycle, what is the goal of the education system, particularly when it comes to it’s most vulnerable individuals? Most particularly, what is the purpose it serves toward those individuals most likely to inhabit those for profit prisons based on statistical probability.  Is the school a grist mill or an institution of learning?

In an ideal world, we all do our best. We do our best to protect the young, to do our jobs, and to control our tempers. But we do not live in an ideal world. The children of the world we are making are adapting to the standards we set. In the course of my interview with Beth, I realized that being a high school senior now as opposed to 20 years ago is very different. Students interact with ever present law enforcement in a way she described as “neutral.” She also made it a point to say that conversational conflict management does little to de-escalate the situations that arise. Is this because there is not a high commodity placed on peaceable resolution?

When asked if she felt the girl, even as a minor, was responsible for how she was treated, Beth’s answer was a swift, deliberate, “Yes.” This response was troubling because it demonstrates a callousness that is being institutionalized. It also provides an explanation as to why it was perfectly normal that the teacher and all of the students, but for one, sat quietly while this went on.

Beth added, “If she wasn’t so defiant and had just done what she was told to do, she wouldn’t have faced the consequences.”

In other words, Beth, and likely many of her peers, accept that misbehaving can result in jail time.  That goofing off, if you piss off the wrong person, can land you in cuffs. This is the way of the world.  The million dollar question is this: Is this the world we want?  


Image Credits: High Prep, U.S. News & World Report

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  • YM

    Rachel, this is such a well written article! Thank you for asking some of the tough questions that I have already asked myself regarding this incident at Spring Valley High School.

  • Kimberlee Morrison

    I think this is very telling: “Beth, and likely many of her peers, accept that misbehaving can result in jail time. That goofing off, if you piss off the wrong person, and land you in cuffs.” I see this argument, that kids need to respect authority and do as they’re told. I won’t really go into how that plays out as double standard when it’s a person of color. Even still, the way I see it, the job of citizens is not to comply or be respectful of the law, especially when the law a clear and present danger.

    Martin Luther King and Gandhi broke the law because the laws were unjust. Is it just for a student to be arrested for having her phone in class and being scared into paralysis when told to go to the principal’s office? I think not. But it seems that mine is an unpopular opinion. And here we have evidence of more stripping away of civil liberties while people just look the other way.