Ethics Observations On The Spring Valley High School Arrest

1. After a 48 hour review, Ben Fields, the school resource officer who was caught on camera violently flipping the desk of a disruptive South Carolina high school student, was fired for violating police department policy. Naturally, he and his lawyer claim otherwise, but that’s just posturing for the inevitable union challenge. He had to be fired for many reasons, including terrible optics and bad judgment. The worst of the defenses offered for his conduct was that the girl, treated like a professional wrestler by the much larger male officer, wasn’t injured. If true, that was pure moral luck: from the violent nature of the arrest, it is a miracle he didn’t break her neck. (The student’s lawyer claims that her arm is broken, among other injuries.)

2. The news media immediately declared this a racial incident. The New York Times, for example, began a report like this:

A white sheriff’s deputy in South Carolina was fired Wednesday after county officials concluded he had acted improperly when, in a videotaped confrontation, he dragged and then threw a female African-American student across a high school classroom this week.

I can find no evidence that race had anything to do with this incident, unless one accepts the Black Lives Matter assertion that the colors of participants in black-white confrontations prove that the white individual is a racist and the black individual is a helpless victim who has no racial biases whatsoever. If this is going to continue to be the automatic media and black activist narrative, then I would suggest that police departments only send black officers to deal with situations involving alleged black offenders. That would be a huge step back in race relations, but the presumption that all white cops are racist is even more damaging. Local officials  requested an FBI and Department of Justice investigation, as in a civil rights investigation, based solely on the fact that Fields was white. To presume that such an investigation is justified based on nothing more is wrong, though it has been the attitude of Obama’s politicized DOJ from the beginning.

3. The arguments made by some police experts that Fields reacted properly to the student’s refusal to follow his lawful orders are intellectually dishonest. The incident occurred in school. Nobody was in danger. The underlying offense—defying a teacher’s authority and refusing to but down a cell phone—is not criminal, and should not have been a police matter. The kind of force used by officer is indefensible. National Review commentator David French argued that there was “nothing to see here.”

After watching and re-watching the incident, I keep coming to the same conclusion: This is what happens when a person resists a lawful order from a police officer to move (UPDATE: CNN is now reporting that a third video shows the student hitting the officer in the face when he initially put his hands on her). Unless the school is willing to have one student commandeer the classroom indefinitely, the officer has few options beyond physical force — and the use of physical force is rarely pretty to see. In this instance, the use of force was decisive, brief, and did not physically harm the student.

As I already noted, whether the student was injured or not is irrelevant to the question of the appropriateness of the officer’s actions, and shooting her would have also been brief and decisive. Again, it is a school. This is a student, and from all reports, a disturbed one. She was not armed or threatening. The officer is there to keep order, not to act like he’s on the street or conducting a drug raid. Teachers once would employ violence against recalcitrant students (See: “The Blackboard Jungle”). As parents have increasingly failed their duty to raise children to respect authority and behave in class, and as courts foolishly hampered schools from expelling disruptive students (Disparate impact on minorities! A right to public education even when a student’s conduct is interfering with the education of others!), many school systems decided that someone in a uniform was necessary to maintain order. That police function, however, is supposed to be different from street law enforcement, as it occurs a in non-criminal, disciplinary setting. I don’t know how French or anyone can watch the video and say, “No big deal.”

4. Is the student at fault? Of course the student is at fault. The student created the situation. On “The View,” co-host Raven-Symone dared to opine while discussing the incident that students need to obey school rules:

“The girl was told multiple times to get off the phone. There’s no right or reason for him to be doing this type of harm, that’s ridiculous, but at the same time, you gotta follow the rules in school…Get off your phone. You are in school, get off your phone.”

Incredibly (or maybe not), the former Huxtable and Disney star was attacked on social media for—what? Saying that students should obey school rules? That they shouldn’t talk on the phone during class? Or suggesting that blacks students don’t have special license to disrupt class? Black writer, professor, editor, blogger, and commentator Roxanne Gay, a professor of English at Purdue University, tweeted in a series of tweets…

Raven Symone’s foolishness is not funny. It’s damaging and embarrassing…Raven must think that she won’t get got by a white police officer when she falls out of line… by having an asinine, dangerous opinion as a human being. 

What is out of line is a Perdue English Professor writing “get got,” as well as disputing the fact that students should follow rules and obey lawful authority. Then race-baiting Charles Blow, easily the most persistently unethical of the New York Times stable of warped columnists, chimed in,

“You know what? I’m abt sick of you “Olivia”! I’m abt to start blasting your nonsense…”

Oooh, I bet she’s scared, Charles. I don’t read your pompous, bigoted trash anymore, but I am interested in what spin you come up with to make the case that the student was blameless.

5. Cell phones should be banned in classrooms. Doing what this student did—talking on the phone mid-class and refusing to stop—should warrant suspension the first time and expulsion the second. (It was this kind of conduct in the large Northern Virginia high school my son briefly attended that caused me to pull him out and home school him. He reported that the first 20 minutes of almost every class consisted of a few students talking and defying the teachers as they futilely begged for attention and quiet.) Defending the student is like defending Mike Brown.

6. French has another essay on the incident, in which he writes…

“…in her first four years of teaching elementary school, she could count the number of intact, mother–father households on the fingers of one hand — and those parents weren’t even married. Very few parents bother to show up for parent/teacher conferences, and the interactions are often dominated by angry threats to sue for various perceived slights. Lousy parenting leads to horrific, often violent child behavior — and even seasoned teachers can be shocked and frightened when classroom incidents spiral out of control.”

I’m sure that’s accurate. I’m also sure that many black parents teach their children that police, especially white police, are enemies to be feared and defied, not authorities to be followed and respected. This contributes to creating these confrontations too.

Neither has anything to do with the officer’s conduct however, which is res ipsa loquitur—it speaks for itself.

7. This month, my friend Tom Manger, the Chief of the Montgomery Count Police Department in Maryland, was honored as the Peacemaker of the Year  at the County’ Conflict Resolution Center. Chief Manger preaches the police technique of de-escalating situations—the mishandling of the Eric Garner arrest is a prime example of this not being done—and trains his officers to improve their de-escalation skills. This viral video of a D.C. police officer who turned a tense street altercation between teens on the street into a dance-off with one of the combatants is as creative an example of de-escalation as we are likely to see:

It worked, too.

If police are reduced to using their dance skills to combat rampant defiance of their authority and to avoid being tarred with charges of racism, however, law enforcement is in dire peril.

35 thoughts on “Ethics Observations On The Spring Valley High School Arrest

  1. Take away the racial angle, and this is no different than Baltimore thug-in-uniform Salvatore Rivieri, who was justifiably fired for escalating an incident involving teenage boys skateboarding in the Inner Harbor. It should have been handled verbally, however, when one of the boys spoke in what Rivieri considered an insufficiently deferential manner, Rivieri flew into a rage, berated the boy, put him in a headlock, and threw him down on the pavement. Unfortunately for Rivieri, one of the other boys recorded the whole ugly incident and put it on youtube. The commissioner had no choice, he HAD to fire him.

      • Popular culture isn’t helping by boosting it with shows like NYPD Blue (where Andy Sipowicz regularly smacked suspects around), Law and Order (where Elliott Stabler did the same and Joe Fontana gave a suspect the royal flush) and Chicago PD (Voight?).

    • Here’s another one for that list.

      There’s a problem, maybe it’s in hiring, maybe training, maybe police culture is just hopeless and police departments need to start over from scratch. Somewhere down the line cops are given the idea that what they say and do can’t be questioned, that people can’t show that they’re upset over being stopped, that any demand must be considered reasonable, that cops must be kowtowed to… Or else.

      Cops are dealing with humans, the ones we talk about are dealing with American humans. People expect explanations, they expect demands to be reasonable on their face. If someone comes up and tells you to do something, the first thoughts are going to be what and why. It’s normal to ask. You need a better answer than ‘it was a lawful order’ for moving immediately into violence.

      Fields’ dismissal is a start. We need to see more cops fired for escalating.

  2. I’m glad to hear that a prominent african-american is speaking out for the importance of respecting the education setting and getting off the darn phone. Talking on the phone, and interrupting work and classes is NOT a rightm and I can understand the jammer idea’s popularity as too many will not separate from the phone to do anything else..

    The first de-escalation should have been the teacher’s. and the prevention is a social change that not being able to put down the phone and its texting/games/video/nannying for a few hours for other business is almost an addiction across every race..

    • What could the teacher have done to de-escalate the situation? The “student” had reportedly refused to stop doing whatever it was that was disrupting the class. The “student” also evidently refused to leave the room and, presumably go to the principal’s office.

        • I feel like it’s appropriate. Quotations marks are often used to imply doubt about the quoted subject – in this case it softly implies that the girl isnt really a student. And if you’re disrupting class and refusing to leave, I’m not inclined to call you a student either. At that point, what are you learning?

          • That’s silly. I have disruptive students–every teacher does. Until they’ve been expelled from school, they are still by definition students.

          • It is appropriate and I agree. Chris feels like a tgt-lite here.

            There’s 2 definitions of students:

            The ideal definition, that is: one who actively and attentively pursues study

            And a “clinical” or “positional” or “practical” (I can’t think of the best word) definition, that is: one who attends a school.

            As you can see, many words can have a definition associated with the ideal as well as a word describing a person in a position occupied by someone hopefully pursuing that ideal.

            In this case one can very much be a student while not being a student. I think it is completely fair to put quotation marks around the noun when the individual in the position doesn’t seem to be pursuing the ideal definition of the position.

    • The teachers have no training and no tools available for use in these situations. What can the teacher do?

      Demand the girl get off the phone? Already done.

      Take the phone away? No, that is a physical altercation and would have ended in the same sort of incident that followed.

      Send her to the principals office? What if she won’t go? The principal is probably going to yell at you for sending someone to the office for talking on the phone anyway.

      Dock her grade? You can’t give bad grades

      Tell her parents? Like they care.

      Jam the phone? Illegal.

      So, how to propose to ‘deescalate’ the situation?

  3. Do they do steroid testing on police? I bet this guy is juiced all to hell and there was more than a little steroid rage going on.

  4. At some point, a completely non-compliant student has to be dealt with somehow. So quite frankly, all the check points had been crossed and PHYSICAL removal was the ONLY option.

    The question then becomes “How much?” and in this case, the answer he gave was “too much”. I even have heard that the student had hit the officer, but even still, the response was excessive.

    But there’s no way around physical removal at that point in the recalcitrant student’s behavior. Of course, this is all given the societal conditions this classroom has been forced to operate within.

    • The police chief talked about “pain application techniques” that were not properly applied. I’m assuming there are Vulcan death grip type methods police are trained in that this officer skipped right past because he was annoyed.

      • My high school teachers were well acquainted with pain application techniques.

        I think most of the school budget was spent replacing broken meter sticks. Though those were available only to math and science teachers, I feel that the other subject’s teachers using thrown erasers and swung staplers across the backs of heads may have run up the budget as well…

  5. The student was an orphan. She lost her mother early this year, was sent to leave with her grandmother, who died in June. She then became a ward of the state and was put into the foster care system, and enrolled in a new school, where the incident occurred. Other students reported that the girl in question was very quiet, subdued, and did not talk to anyone for very long. According to witnesses, the incident was sparked when the girl looked at her phone, was caught by the teacher, and refused to let her phone be confiscated, though she did put away the phone and apologize repeatedly.

    I think this was all needless escalation, starting with the teacher. While he may not have known what was going on in her life, and that the phone was probably her only lifeline to her previous life, instead of wasting class time trying to get her to give up her phone after she put it away, just give her detention and keep it moving. Getting into a pointless power struggle with a teenager is dumb. Everything else flows from there. By the time the police officer is called, you have to know that some amount of force will be used on the student. That’s what the police are there for. If you want to talk her out of her chair, the school counselor would have been the better bet.

    And then of course, you have the officer, who went way overboard. Instead of seeing a peaceful, but noncompliant student, and bowing out (call me when you actually need me to do something), he went in 1000%, and escalated what has to be one of the most common situations to a breathtaking horror. He could have easily broken her neck, over a quick look at a cell phone. And people are defending this. Craziness.

    • “According to witnesses, the incident was sparked when the girl looked at her phone, was caught by the teacher, and refused to let her phone be confiscated, though she did put away the phone and apologize repeatedly.”

      Is one of the school/classroom rules not to look at cell phones during class?

      • Yes, that was what sparked the incident, apparently. Though given that we have at least three different cell phone videos of the incident taken by other students, all given from multiple angles, it doesn’t appear to be heavily enforced. I personally am against putting a student in a chokehold, taking them down to the floor, and dragging them across the room for refusing to give up a cell phone, but apparently others disagree. This was a detention-worthy, incredibly common offense, nothing more.

        • “Though given that we have at least three different cell phone videos of the incident taken by other students, all given from multiple angles, it doesn’t appear to be heavily enforced.”

          Irrelevant, once class was disrupted by this one student to the point of needing a forced removal, class was de facto over until the incident reached resolution. As long as the students maintained general order while awaiting the end of this episode, there was no CLASS to maintain.

          This objection doesn’t undermine the teacher’s initial request for the non-complaint student to surrender her phone after violating a school/classroom rule.

          “I personally am against putting a student in a chokehold, taking them down to the floor, and dragging them across the room for refusing to give up a cell phone, but apparently others disagree. This was a detention-worthy, incredibly common offense, nothing more.”

          Irrelevant and hyperbolic also. I haven’t read anyone here defending the excessive force. The point is, the student crossed the line of non-compliance, simply saying “you get detention” was a line crossed long ago as well, physical removal was the last option. The question is then “how much”. NO ONE says the officer used an appropriate minimum.

          • My original point was, she did not need to be removed from class. Forced removal from class was far from the only option at the teacher’s disposal, and the one least suited to the supposed indiscretion. By eyewitness account, she had put the phone away when she was called out for it. At that time, give her detention, and move on, with minimal class disruption. If you want to confiscate her phone, but she won’t give it up, give her the choice of giving it to you, or longer detention and/or suspension. Then move on. It was just very bad classroom management and needless escalation on the part of the teacher. Removal should be something of a last resort, due to physical harm, threats, or constant disruptions of other student’s learning time. The teacher engaged in a dumb power struggle with a teenager, and that caused a far greater disruption than just moving on would have, even before the officer showed up.

              • Well, she was pretty new to the school, as she was recently placed with this foster family, so any adverse history could only have been but so long.

                • “The teacher engaged in a dumb power struggle with a teenager,”

                  Kind of like “Justice… or else!” So a teacher is unwise and malpracticing if he or she tries to impose his or her will upon a teenager. Great. Kind of says it all.

                  • I agree with your assertion that the teacher wasn’t wrong. The teacher *could* have chosen other routes, but for reasons unknown chose to temporarily confiscate the phone, which we assume is within the stated rules of the school and classroom nor is it unreasonable to do so.

                    The onus then falls fully on the “student” to comply. She didn’t. What next?

                    • Having taught high school for two years long ago, I’d say engaging in a power struggle with teenagers is an either overt or covert part of every single school day.

  6. This is a 3 part problem.
    (1) The schools have given up on trying to discipline children and have found it easier to let the police handle it. Now, police are called in to issue tickets to kids who are talking in class. The teachers have no authority and no respect. After seeing many of the teachers, I say there is no way anyone is going to respect them, anyway, but the administrative situation makes it impossible.

    (2) The children have no parents by design. We have made it advantageous for people not to be married and support their children. We have gotten exactly the outcome desired to ensure the favored political outcome.

    (3) The police have been militarized. I was watching a video and the police instructors were talking incredulously about how police were armed in the 1970’s. The average patrol officer carried a medium frame revolver and 18 rounds total. Cruisers had a shotgun. Crime rates were higher then.

    Officers now have semi-auto handguns with 50+ rounds on their person, shotguns, M-16’s and more in their cruisers. In the 70’s, the police armory would have some 30-30 lever actions and a few Reising submachine guns. Today, they have MRAP’s and enough armament for a Vietnam-era special forces team. These police trainers can’t image going back. With the added equipment comes a change in attitude. You better talk your way out of a confrontation with 10 people if you are armed with a revolver. With an M-16 or even a 20 round semi-auto pistol, you can just shoot your way out.

    Link goes to a discussion of the Miracle Valley shootout. Compare this to what could happen today.

    These are not the people who should be handling “put the cell phone down” situations.

    An interesting question. What if we went back to issuing revolvers to the police?

    • “What if we went back to issuing revolvers to the police?”
      After the inevitable protests, probably not much. Statistics show the average number of rounds fired by police in gunfights still ranges in the area of 3.5 to 4.5, even including some wild outliers, a round or two less than a standard police revolver’s capacity. I carried a revolver for the first 23 years of my career and a semi-auto for the last 17. I never felt poorly armed with my revolver and speed loaders, although this apparently does seem like a severe handicap to many of today’s younger officers. It’s much more important to be able to neutralize a threat quickly than to have a bucketful of rounds available. As far as “militarization” is concerned, I carried a M-1 carbine with 15 round magazines way back in 1975, and nobody expressed alarm about that. As for the standard pump shotgun, that’s 19th century technology. I would say most of today’s police establishment would go along with reverting to revolvers just as soon as the bad guys went back to flintlock pistols. I don’t expect it to happen.

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