By now you've seen the viral video of the white South Carolina deputy throwing a black female high school student to the ground. Like most viral videos, it's caused quite a controversy. Some felt the student had it coming; while others felt the officer was way out of line. Right or wrong, the video brings to light an increasing problem in our public school system. Authorities being called into classrooms happens more than you think. And as a parent, you need to know where your state ranks when it comes to students being referred to law enforcement.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, U.S. Department of Education data released this year from the 2011-2012 school year showed that "in most states black, Latino and special needs (disabled) students get referred to police and courts disproportionately. The volume of referrals from schools is fueling arguments that zero-tolerance policies and school policing are creating a 'school-to-prison pipeline' by criminalizing behavior better dealt with outside courts."
I am Latina. I live in New York — one of the top five states with the highest Latino populations. My son, Norrin, has autism. Hispanic students in New York are more than twice as likely to be referred to law enforcement than their white peers, and disabled or special needs students are more than tree times as likely to be referred to law enforcement than their white peers. And although my state ranks 36th out of 51 (meaning my state has less referrals to law enforcement than 35 other states), as the mother of a special needs Latino child, this disturbs me deeply.
If this is data from a few years ago, imagine what it might be now — considering all the things we've seen on the news about kids being mistreated by teachers, staff or school officers just in the last year. So, yeah, I'm more than concerned when I see videos of kids being mistreated in classrooms by authority figures. I am scared because I know my son is statistically more likely to be affected than most of his peers.
A few years ago, I was searching for an appropriate placement for my son and visited a special needs school within a local public school. Within minutes, I knew the school was not the place I wanted my son to be because what I saw and heard broke my heart.
I saw a boy strapped into a wooden-looking kind of wheelchair being pulled backward as if he were a piece of luggage. He was missing a shoe and sock.
I heard teacher assistants yelling at children.
Maybe you think that something like this would never happen to your kid. You may be right. I hope you are. But if you think this video or the statistics shouldn't concern you, I'm afraid you're wrong.
When I saw the occupational/physical therapy room, it was filled with equipment that looked as if it hadn't been moved in months. And I questioned why the children in wheelchairs were getting their OT/PT services in the hallway. There was no elevator in the building and the therapy room was in the basement. The children in wheelchairs — the ones who really needed to use the equipment most — had no way of getting down there.
But here's what upset me the most. The man who gave me a tour showed me a classroom and called it the "last stop" before institutionalization. Then talked in great detail about "taking down a child." He made it a point to tell me that he was the only one allowed to take down a child and he seemed almost proud of that privilege. And if he couldn't control the child physically, then the authorities would be called and the child would be taken to a psychiatric unit.
We spent more time talking about how children were disciplined rather than what they were taught.
This wasn't a high school I was touring or even a junior high school. It was an elementary school. And the classroom he called the last stop was a third-grade classroom.
My husband works in law enforcement and when he talks about "taking someone down," he's talking about an adult that's committed some kind of crime or offense, not a child in a classroom.
Norrin is able to speak, but he doesn't always have the ability to speak up for himself. And he can't tell me if he's been mistreated or if someone in his class was being mistreated.
I expect educators and the people working with children — especially special needs children — to be compassionate. We send our kids to school and expect the ones in charge to protect them, to teach them, to help them. And I would like to believe that bringing the police into a school to remove a child is the absolute last resort not the first.
Maybe you don't have a kid in high school, maybe you don't have a kid with special needs, or maybe you think that something like this would never happen to your kid. You may be right. I hope you are. But if you think this video or the statistics shouldn't concern you, I'm afraid you're wrong.
Because even if it isn't your kid being abused by the police, your kid could easily be the one witnessing the abuse.