Gender, Social Justice

The Spring Valley assault reminds me of all the other scarring experiences black women have had

My teacher was pissed and she had nobody to take it out on but me. 

I first saw the video of the #AssaultatSpringValley over the weekend. The clip shows a young black girl being confronted by a white police officer in class at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina. She refuses to leave the classroom or put away her cell phone. Anyone who attended high school after the time that cell phones became ubiquitous has seen this kind of interaction between a student and an authority figure before. I expected for some yelling to be done, but what happened next made my jaw drop.

I’d seen male students dragged out of class forcefully when I was in school — stuff that made me and my classmates yell and scream like the young woman in the background of the video does — but for the most part, I don’t remember seeing male resource officers physically remove a female student who was not in the middle of a fistfight. In the video, former school resource officer Ben Fields (he was fired on October 28), grabbed the student by the neck, turned the desk over and dragged her from the room. It was so violent that, even after years of seeing clip after clip of police officers inflicting violence on black and brown bodies, I started to cry almost instantly. I wasn’t shocked and that upset me. I was just crushed. And angry.

Regardless of gender, race, and/or age, this kind of force is not warranted for a student who does not pose an immediate, physical threat to anyone else in the classroom. Since the video went viral, there have been many, many discussions about what happened. Most people (a.k.a. people with common sense) were outraged; upset at the images of a child being assaulted by someone who is installed in her school to keep her safe. They were heartbroken upon learning that the young victim had recently been placed in foster care — which was probably the reason she was not following directions in the first place. They were furious that the teacher did nothing to intervene, that Niya Kenny (the young woman who can be heard screaming in the background) was arrested for speaking up, and that many of the other students sat and watched this happen without causing a fuss.

Other people were — how shall I say this? — less compassionate. They made excuses for Fields, saying that we “didn’t know what she’d done” and that we should “wait to pass judgment” — all the while passing judgment on a teenager who had been yanked by the neck and dragged on the floor by a much larger, grown man. They insisted that “kids these days” are out of control and don’t have any respect. They argued that anyone who works with children must love kids, and would never physically harm them, or sit by and watch them be harmed, without just cause.

Sadly, these attitudes aren’t much of a surprise. Studies have shown that some people percieve black children to be much older and less innocent than white kids. In the past few years, the U.S. Department of Education and several other groups have taken a closer look at the differences in how black and brown students are disciplined in school, showing how both latent and upfront systemic and interpersonal racism can harm schoolchildren.

One of the major takeaways was the rate at which black girls are suspended, compared to their white counterparts. After the #AssaultAtSpringValley video hit Twitter, actress/producer/all around badass Reagan Gomez posed this question to her followers:

For me, I think my first truly scarring experience came when I was in 8th grade. It was the first, and only, time I was labeled as a “defiant” student. Honestly, it pales in comparison to so many people’s stories, but it changed the way I look at the world. 

A little history about me: I was bullied during the first few years of school and used to slip away to the library for a break — as a result, I read a lot. My grades were good because my mom’s a teacher and would accept nothing less, and besides my excessive talking (my siblings are much older than me, so I talked as much as any only child), I never really got into too much trouble.

That all changed after lunch one day. I belonged to the school’s Girl Scout Troop and one day, my teacher overheard a fellow scout ask me to borrow a pencil while we were coming back from lunch. I gave her one and she disappeared into a nearby girls room. Thinking that the girl was going to write on the walls, my teacher demanded that I tell her the girl’s name. What my teacher failed to remember is that I am black. Needlessly snitching is frowned upon. To say the least. 

Instead, I chose to go into the bathroom and tell my friend that my teacher wanted to speak with her. Basically, my attitude was “Don’t put me in the middle of your drama, lady.” My teacher…did not like that. At all.

She took it as an act of “defiance” and scheduled a meeting with my mother to discuss my behavior. Because my mother is amazing, she talked with me first to hear my side of the story. I told her everything that happened and rolling her eyes, she agreed to the meeting. Basically, my teacher felt that I was being negatively influenced by my “new” friends, namely, an old friend who had recently switched to my “academic team” (the group of students who I had classes with each year). This infuriated my mother for two reasons: 1) she’s an educator who hates when kids are labeled “defiant,” “disobedient,” “bad,” etc., and 2) she believed my teacher was judging my friend based on the fact that she had an apostrophe in her name.

Like many black mothers before her, my mother set her child’s teacher straight. She informed her that I’d been friends with that girl since 4th grade. In fact, our families were old friends. Her grandmother used to babysit my father. My mother resented the fact that I’d been put in an awkward position and asked to tattle on a friend. She also warned my teacher that the “next time [she] called [her] up to that school, it had better be about something.”

That should have been the end of it, but it was not. My teacher was pissed and she had nobody to take it out on but me. It was clear that my mother was not going to do anything about “my behavior,” so she set about making my life as miserable as she could. For the most part, she was just incredibly cold and rude to me. That I could handle. The real issue came one day when the class was being exceptionally rowdy. In the midst of everyone yelling through her lesson, my “new” friend asked me what page we were supposed to be reading. I told her and went back to my work. My teacher singled me out, saying “Since you know everything, Lauren, let’s grade our work off of your paper.” She was incensed when I got all of the answers right.

That was my breaking point. After getting some advice from my mother, I decided to confront my teacher. One day, after class (I didn’t want the room to be full so that she could think that I was trying to show off), I told her that I’d been “feeling some hostility in class and I want to know what I can do to make it stop.” Because, you know, I had no choice but to be there each day. She blew up, yelling “You’re darn right you feel some hostility.” Realizing it was a lost cause, I left. It was my last year of middle school. I just vowed to do all of my work perfectly so that she didn’t have an excuse to try to vindictively hurt my GPA.

Maybe we should have gone to the principal, but we didn’t. I thought that was the last of it…until I learned that she had been going around to the other teachers, telling them about our conversation. Most of them seemed to be amused by the gossip or concerned that I wasn’t a “sweet” girl anymore (bleh). Finally, my social studies teacher came up to me after progress reports were issued. He asked to see mine and after seeing that my grades were solid and there were no bad comments in the conduct section, he smiled and said “Well, they should probably all shut up, then.” I loved him for that and I always will.

What would have happened if I’d lost my temper? If I hadn’t had parents who knew the system, who encouraged me? What if I’d been struggling academically and needed help from a teacher who had decided she was going to hate me? What if I’d internalized that negativity and believed that I’d lost my “sweetness?”

To this day, I think that my teacher (who happened to be white, by the way), assumed that because I did well academically, was light-skinned, had the “right kind of name” and rarely got into trouble, I must have been “led astray” by someone. She just took the whole thing so … personally. And that made me realize.

I will say this: this instance taught me a valuable lesson about questioning authority. The teachers, administrators and resource officers who work at these schools are humans. They are capable of compassion, pettiness, hatred, kindness, anger — the full spectrum of human emotions, just like us.

What’s more is the fact that there are far too many people who are willing to believe that “kids these days” are just miserable wretches who deserve our contempt. I will be the first to admit that I am not a “teenager person.” Too many hormones churning around in people who are often experiencing some of life’s most trying lessons for the first time — I’m not built for it. But here’s the thing: outside of physically harming one of the people in her classroom, there is nothing that teen girl in South Carolina could have done to warrant Fields’s violent approach.

The adult in the room is not always right. The person with the badge is not always just. These may shake up your worldview, but the sooner we all learn how to question authority, the better we will all be.