Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Regarding the Spring Valley High School Matter

By now, I assume that you've seen the video of the Richland County Sheriff's deputy "removing" a Spring Valley High School student from her desk. If you haven't seen it, here's a link.

I've noticed that all of the comments I have seen flying around on FaceBook, Twitter, and the other parts of the web have fallen into two categories. The two categories are this:

Category 1: You have to respect authority, and a student who won't obey teachers and openly defies a police officer gets what's coming to her. She should have known better.

Category 2: The police officer has no excuse whatsoever for his actions, and under no circumstances should force be used like this against children in school, who are just there to learn their ABCs in a safe space.

Not a lot of room for middle ground between those two lines of thought, is there? And it would be nice if life was simply a binary choice like this all the time. The answer is either A or B. Either the police officer is totally at fault, or the student is totally at fault. The thing is, life isn't this simple; it's complicated and messy.

Both the student and the officer contributed to this situation. They both made decisions that led to the ultimate violent outcome of the conflict. Both sides are wrong in certain ways, in my opinion. Let's take them individually.

The student: In this instance, it's clear that the student is openly defying the teacher, the administration, and eventually law enforcement. This is a disruption to class. As an initial matter, I think this student needs to be expelled. If a police officer has to be called on you, and you still don't go quietly, then, as "Viper" in Top Gun says...you are history. So, up to this point, the student's failure to comply is her mistake.

She should obey the teachers, the administrators, and ultimately, the police officer. However, she choose to remain defiant. It is a mistake to say that the violence carried out absolves her of this bad decision.

Now, what happens after the student fails to comply is all on the officer. The ball is in his court, so to speak. He did not handle the situation very well. So let's turn to him.

The officer: Here, you have a uniformed police officer who is faced with a high school student who is refusing to go quietly. He has the legal authority to remove her from the classroom, but the question is how. She's refusing to obey. I'll admit, I have no idea how long the standoff between the non-compliant student and the officer went on before this video began. I would hope that a police officer would not immediately resort to force, but would rather talk to the student, and attempt to convince them that she should come quietly, reserving force as truly a last measure. He's an adult, and trained at this, so it is fair to expect more of him than the student.

Accordingly, if the police officer resorted to force this quickly, then his first mistake was being impatient. However, non-compliance from a student is a big deal. Even, teachers (maybe especially teachers and administrators) expect compliance from students, and treating police like teachers was another mistake that the student made. You cannot allow non-compliance in a school.

So let's be clear what we are dealing with here is a student who has openly defied a teacher, openly defied an administrator, and now is faced with law enforcement. At this point, the situation changes, the student isn't facing a teacher or an administrator. They're facing law enforcement.

(Side note: You want to have a really bad day? Openly defy a police officer who is giving you an order. See how that turns out for you.)

So let's move on and assume that the application of force was inevitable. Let's assume that no amount of cajoling or threatening was going to get the student to go quietly. Now, the only options are to either use force, or declare that the officer has no power over the student.

Obviously, the latter would end in an absurd result, so we should all agree that the police officer has legal authority to use appropriate force to resolve the situation. The key word in that last sentence was "appropriate". What force is appropriate here?

As the incident begins, the officer starts to forcibly remove the student from her desk. However, the student counters by intentionally intertwining herself with the desk, in an effort to thwart her removal.

Almost immediately the desk flips backwards. I can't say why for sure, but my guess is that it's simply an unintended result that occurred with both the officer and the student straining against each other. At this point in time, I really don't have a problem with the use of force. Maybe the officer should have cleared the area, because the desk flipping over might have hurt the person directly behind the non-compliant student.

So at this point, the student has created a situation where force is required to be used on her. So that's on the student to a large degree. The moment I have a problem with the police officer's use of force is when he tosses her forward along the floor. It's clear that the officer is mad, and the toss is a sort of "punishment" for resisting. It's not necessary. It's an inappropriate use of force. The police aren't supposed to toss you across the room simply because you resisted them. They're supposed to subdue you, and...that's it. After you're down, the force ends.

So ultimately, we have an officer who used more force than necessary in an engagement that was necessarily brought about by the student. Who's at fault?

They both are.

Just as I said we should punish the student with expulsion for her non-compliance, the police officer should be punished for his inappropriate and excessive use of force in the normal way that such things occur. I don't know if that's firing him, or something less. The ultimate determination will be the result of a great deal of factors, I'm sure.

Ultimately, we need to understand that incidents like this don't happen just by the acts of one person. Both people contributed to this event. Also, as a side note, if something like this happened to one of my children, I would be furious: mostly at my child for being so disobedient. But that's me, and that's my parental style. Your mileage may vary.


  1. Great analysis! I had thought very much the same thing. I defended a lot of kids (almost 100% of them black) on 'disturbing schools' charges, sometimes for truly disruptive behavior--fair enough, but sometimes for behavior that in another school might not be criminalized. I get that the teachers and administrators are dealing with a lot of kids not like us in terms of behavior (although I famously got straight As except for a C in conduct all through grade school--I could talk before I could walk, and never shut up after that)....the officer does seem to lose it, as you note. Maybe he was on a short fuse because he needed a vacation after the flooding--I know I have felt kind of off, and the worst we encountered was having to boil water and find alternate routes. He must have been worked to death.

  2. Agreed; it's nice to read something in shades of gray.

  3. Great analysis, Brian. The only thing I would add (as a teacher) is that the room should have been cleared before any force was used. I suspect the girl would have been more cooperative without the audience.

    1. One other point. You don't expel students for a "disruption," especially not for a single incident. Document and suspend. Expulsion comes with violent or chronic disruptions.

    2. I spoke with a former Richland County Sheriff's Deputy today (who now has a federal joh) and he said the exact same thing about clearing the classroom being the first thing to do. You deprive the disruptive student of an "audience" and they have no one to perform for...oh and no videos.

    3. Yeah. No witnesses ;)

  4. Thanks. I enjoyed reading this.

  5. i reject the claim that the officer used excessive force. his mission was to remove her from the desk and the room- where you say he erred was in his technique to send her one way and the desk the other way. well she may have had some residual inertia - so what.

    I do think they set up the officer

    he was in a no win situation - whatever he did would have failed to satisfy

    back when people killed their own chickens - no one would have raised an eyebrow at this event

  6. I truly support the Deputy 100%. He was called in to do the job and he did it. The student that everyone keeps calling a child was defiant with everyone and she was showboating in front of the class. I hope they charge her with assault on an Officer too. She deserves what she got because she brought all this on herself by her actions. I read your article and can agree in a lot of aspects, but the Deputy should not have been fired for this.