The following op-ed originally appeared in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette
Recently, a video surfaced on Facebook of Dekyrion Ellis, a Black student at Camden Fairview High School, being choked to the point he was physically lifted off the ground multiple times by a school resource officer.
In Dekyrion's words, “I feared for my life. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I blacked out. I really didn’t see anything until he took me back to the office.” The officer in question has been relieved of his duties.
But no one who viewed that video could call this anything but a shocking act of brutality, in a school of all places, where young people should feel safe and welcomed. Instead — for students of color especially — schools have become a place where young people learn to fear and mistrust the very law enforcement officers who are sworn to protect them.
A’kayla Johnson, a Brinkley High School student, didn't return to school for days, after a resource officer slammed her against a wall, choked her, and tried to put her in handcuffs while she waited for a ride home. As outrageous as it sounds, A’kayla's story isn't uncommon.
Every day in our nation’s schools, children as young as five are charged with “crimes” for minor misbehavior: throwing a paper airplane, kicking a trashcan, and wearing sagging pants. In the name of school safety, we're actually making schools more dangerous, traumatizing children, and creating a harmful school-to-prison pipeline that fuels mass incarceration.
Too many schools are wrongly spending their scarce resources on security systems and the hiring of police officers, rather than investing in mental health support.
In Arkansas, more than half of schools reported police on staff but no counselor, psychologist, nurse, and/or social worker. When there are no other behavioral resources at hand, some teachers request help from law enforcement, which can inflict serious harm on the very children they have a duty to protect.
Statistics show that law enforcement officers are more likely to take these wildly inappropriate reactions if the child is a student of color or has a disability. Students of color are more likely to be referred to law enforcement and are arrested at three times the rate of white students. This is despite the fact that there's no evidence that racial disparities in discipline are the consequence of differences in rates or types of misbehavior by Black/Latino and white students.
The proliferation of “zero tolerance” and other harsh disciplinary policies in many school districts contributes to the criminalization of vulnerable students who need counseling and support – not handcuffs and incarceration.
Unfortunately, when it comes to holding police officers who harm students accountable – policing remains one of the few professions without a statewide licensing board empowered to receive and act on complaints from the public. In Arkansas, it is nearly impossible to obtain clear information about police activities in public schools. This lack of transparency hinders oversight and leaves students all the more vulnerable.
Beyond the immediate physical harm students might experience as a result of the excessive use of force, the over-policing of students of color has profound, traumatic, and life-altering impacts. The evidence shows that the criminalization of children who violate school rules increases the likelihood they will come in contact with the juvenile justice system in the future.
Creating safe and supportive learning environments should be a value all Arkansans share. In the wake of these shocking events, the ACLU of Arkansas is once again calling for greater oversight of school policing, an end to counterproductive zero-tolerance discipline policies, a statewide standards board empowered to take complaints from the public about police, and for more counselors, not cops, in schools.