by Evan Scollard ’17
& Zaniyyah Ashbey ’19
The video of a South Carolina school resource officer roughly dragging a fifteen-year-old female black student from the classroom has led to a national outcry about how to manage school discipline. The cell phone camera footage shows a well-built man ripping her from a desk chair when she wouldn’t leave the classroom voluntarily. Watching him wrestle her little body, we wonder what’s happened that police officers treat children like criminals. While certain aspects of the event remain in dispute, most agree that the situation is an instance of “rapid escalation.”But how do we comprehend an incident like that, especially how it deteriorated so quickly into a violent classroom confrontation? Where do we point the finger? Are there underlying factors in these types of situations that we as a society are afraid to face? And most importantly, can we be sure something similar won’t happen here in Hartford? Our school officers lack arresting and disciplinary power, focusing instead on de-escalating conflict – unhindered by a sidearm. Accordingly, we might feel safe from violent episodes like we saw in South Carolina. That does not mean, however, that we do not face serious challenges.
In Connecticut’s capital city, adolescents disproportionately face legal discipline and even incarceration. Between 2012 and 2013, Hartford claimed 13% of Connecticut’s school-based arrests (198 of the 1,460 students arrested). By 2015, the percentage was 19.6 (341 of 1,738 students). The state’s judicial branch ranked the district as an area of concern for a school-to-prison pipeline.
In an effort to avoid feeding this school-to-prison pipeline, we need to rethink our strategies for how to discipline misbehaviors in schools and we all need to prioritize rehabilitation over criminalization. This would begin with an emphasis on social work and rehabilitative discipline in the school system that could disrupt the behavioral patterns that put students in legal trouble. This means tracking histories of conduct, channeling the disciplinary process at least partially through the office of social work, and responding to each instance of misbehavior on a case-by-case basis. Accordingly, we will need to increase the number of social workers in the schools and train them specifically to deal with developmental issues, so they can identify psychological issues underlying misconduct and propose individual adjustment plans as needed. The school system also needs greater access to clinical psychologists to aid in treatment of students with traumatic pasts, underlying psychopathologies, or negative cognitive sets. Similarly, we would need streamlined resource systems to respond quickly to issues like malnutrition, neglect, or abuse that might cause misbehavior. At the very least, we need to create easier access to psychiatric specialists and family welfare services.
For spontaneous incidents on school grounds (like fights, extreme instances of insubordination, or disruptive outbursts), we need a team-response strategy that involves the immediate dispatch of a security officer to address any threat, an administrator to restore order, and a social worker to de-escalate the offender and take advantage of first-hand observation to determine the underlying causes of the misbehavior. Rather than putting the child in a defensive position with harsh punishment, schools should use psychological assessment to adjust the child’s behavior without legally reprimanding them. To be clear, this approach does not mean allowing misbehavior to go unpunished – it means deciding how to handle incident while considering a student’s history, home-life, and psychological state.
While some may dismiss these suggestions new-age approaches that have failed in the past, they would actually make us the first school system to put such a heavy emphasis on social work and rehabilitative justice. This collaborative solution is likely to have a long term positive impact on student engagement in education, and promises to show students the individual care necessary to keep them in the classroom and off of the track guiding them into the prison system.