Spring Valley High and the Criminalization of Black Youth


orginal version published at racetowealth.net on 10/28/15

Yet another video of aggressive policing has gone viral, this one capturing a white police officer grabbing a seated, black, female student by her collar, body-slamming her onto the floor, and dragging her across the classroom at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina. Her alleged infraction? Refusing to comply with the officer’s instructions to leave the room after she was confronted for texting in class.

The officer, Deputy Ben Fields, has been fired, and a federal investigation is under way.  But the psychological and emotional, not to mention physical, damage to the victim, who is a recent orphan and now in fostercare, has already been inflicted.

Since the incident, many have looked to the disobedience of the student as a seeming justification for the officer’s actions. This focus is grossly misplaced; however, unfortunately, it is in line with the blue cloak of rightousness afforded more and more to over-aggressive police officers– especially, when the aggression involves young, black suspects.
As the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina stated regarding Officer Fields’ actions, “There is no justification whatsoever for treating a child like this.” Agreed. Yet, the underlying premise is that police officers will actually view black students as children, to be treated with the guidance and care required to facilitate their pathway to adulthood.  Sadly, studies show the color of their skin makes it less likely officers will do so.

Black children are less likely to be viewed as children, and, therefore, are more likely to lose their association with innocence. In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers asked both college students and police officers to estimate the ages of young children who they had been told committed a crime. Both groups of college students and officers were far more likely to overestimate the ages of young black boys as compared to young white boys. They also viewed black children as less innocent. This is one mahor reason why black children are 18 times more likely to be sentenced as adults.

As a mother, the reality that my children are less associated with innocence simply because of their skin color is down-right frightening. I look at my son—5’10″, slender but muscular, with facial hair and a Barry White baritone voice. He’s 13. Although he is growing into a fine young man, he is not yet a man. He still has youthful tendencies—a skip here, a bit of impetuousness there, and yes, a pre-occupaton and territoriality about his phone. He still needs the nurturing and guidance of his parents, his teachers, and society in general. But to many, he’s already a man simply based on stature alone. Add to his physical appearance brown skin, and I know this makes him more vulnerable.

While certainly most police officers do not brutalize black youth, the hard truth is that we all have implicit biases that affect how we view others.  And a great deal of Americans– including police officers, attorneys, judges, and jurors– have an implicit, or subconsious, bias, that causes a greater association of African Americans with criminality.

This imputation of culpability on black children has devastating consequences for their educational attainment, employability, freedom, and, sometimes, their very lives.

As has been often noted in discussions on the school-to-prison pipeline, black children are targeted more often and earlier on for school policy violations. Zero tolerance school policies have resulted in more disruption to black children’s education. Thirty-five percent of black children grades 7 through 12 have been suspended or expelled at some point in their school careers, as opposed to 15% of whites. And while much focus has been placed on the criminalization of black boys, black girls too are targeted more than their white counterparts. According to a 2014 Columbia University study, Black Girls Matter, black female students are “subject to discipline that is harsher and more frequent than that of their white peers, and are six times more likely to be suspended than white girls.”

Students who are subject to school discipline are also more likely to end up in the criminal justice system. The statistics bear this out. The racial disparities for juveniles in the criminal justice system are heart-breaking. Despite comprising only 13% of the population, nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.

The financial devastation that these young, black people face upon reentry is real. Offenders have difficulty finding employment—more than half of released offenders are unemployed a year after reentry– and are often banned from holding certain jobs.  Their criminal records make it difficult to find housing, obtain educational loans, and get public assistance.  And while the newly proposed Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act includes provisions to help protect juvenile prisoners, including providing that all nonviolent offenses committed by youth under the age of 15 be expunged from their records when they turn 18, this would only impact juveniles in federal prison and not state prisons, where the overwhelming percentage of the nation’s prisoners are held.

The economic effect of over-incarceration of black youth is of course only part of the picture. Early detention has social and psychological ramifications that also wreak havoc on the quality of life after serving time.

Moreover some black children aren’t even afforded reentry into society.They are tried as adults and subject to life imprisonment and even the death penalty. A 14 year-old black boy, George Stinney Jr., is the youngest person to ever be executed in the U.S., and just last year, over seventy years later, he was posthumously exonerated.


Not only are black youth overrepresented in the criminal justice system, the criminalization of black children can be seen in the string of police and pseudo-police violence in recent years. The names have become branded into the lexicon of the black community—12-year-old Tamir Rice, gunned down within seconds of police arriving to see him holding a toy gun. Fifteen-year-old unarmed Dajerria Becton, a slight-of-build, pool party guest violently pinned down while in her bikini by a much larger, gun-wielding police officer. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin, shot by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, and whose age was seldom the focus of media coverage despite images of the bag of skittles he had been carrying when killed that should have served as constant reminders of his youth. And if we include non-minor teenagers, of course Michael Brown and many others are added to the growing list of police-related violence against black youth.

So, while it may be tempting to see the actions of the officer at Spring Valley High as constituting an isolated incident by an overzealous or fed-up school “safety” officer, in reality it is reflective of the lesson many black school children across the country are now learning– that their safety, futures, and lives matter less because of the color of their skin.

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