Racial tensions have long simmered in the Columbia, South Carolina, suburb where a white police officer violently arrested a black female high school student on Monday and dragged her from her classroom, according to a coalition of black parents.
“We’ve been in dialogue with the school district, the superintendent and anyone that will hear us concerning many issues,” said the Rev. Hugh Harmon, the chairman of the group, the Richland Two Black Parents Association (RTBPA). “The issue with a lot of parents is the disproportionate way in which expulsions and suspensions were being doled out to young men that look like myself.”
The group, consisting of nearly 6,000 parents, was formed about three years ago in response to parents’ concerns about punishments targeting black students. Monday’s arrest, according to the RTBPA, was simply the latest example.
“The unfortunate actions of this police officer has revealed what many African-American parents have experienced in this district for a very long time,” the group said in a statement Monday.
Those complaints are echoed in a recent report by the UCLA Civil Rights Project, which found that huge racial disparities exist in certain U.S. school districts regarding student suspensions. Elementary schools in Missouri, for example, suspended 14.4 percent of their black students at least once during the 2011–12 school year, compared with 1.8 percent of white students.
The FBI and Justice Department announced on Tuesday that they have opened a civil rights investigation into the incident, one of several recent violent episodes across the U.S. that have heightened scrutiny of the use of force by police against minorities.
The Richland County Sheriff's Department on Tuesday placed Ben Fields, the officer who arrested the girl, on administrative duty. Richland School District Two has barred him from returning to any of its 40 schools during the investigation, and district officials said they would not tolerate behavior that jeopardizes the safety of students.
On Tuesday night at a school board meeting, parents spoke out. Connie Streater, the black mother of a fifth-grade student in the Richland 2 school system said Fields was right to use force on the student but that he used too much. Rebekah Woodford, the white parent of several Spring Valley graduates and one current student, told board members that the issue isn't at all racial but is about parents and teachers learning how to deal with defiant students.
The demographics of Richland School District Two have changed drastically in the last two decades, as migration from Columbia has transformed the previously white suburbs of Richland County. Today nearly 59 percent of the school district’s 27,500 students are black.
However, the demographics of the district’s teachers and school board remained predominantly white, Harmon said.
In last year’s Richland School District Two board election, the RTBPA rallied around black candidates, hoping to elect people who could better represent the student body.
“I ran for the school board during the last election,” Harmon said. “It was a visceral, volatile and vociferous debate, because out of 11 candidates that ran, seven were African-American.” Four of the seven board members are black. Three of them were supported by the RTBPA.
Another group, the Bipartisan White Citizens, was formed to counter the RTBPA’s efforts, according to Harmon, and warned district residents that schools would be “destroyed” if the board shifted to mostly black members.
“I think it’s the last stand for a good district,” Bipartisan White Citizens member George Shissias told reporters during the election. Candidates should be elected on the basis of their qualifications, not race, he said at the time. The group supported four candidates, three of whom were white.
Harmon questioned that reasoning. Why, he asked, would RTBPA parents want to destroy their neighborhood’s schools?
“It really rose the ugly head of racism in the community — long before the Emanuel 9 and the Confederate flag debate,” he said. “We’re not rabble-rousing crazy black folk. We’re educated, and that distresses people. Most of us are educators. Two or three of the board members are retired principals.”
The RTBPA has called on the school district to draft a discipline policy to end discriminatory punishments and to clarify the mandate of school resource officers.
The group is not opposed to the use of such officers in general. “The vast majority of school resource officers are great and have great relationships with the students,” he said. “They are more in a position of protecting campuses than policing them.”
Richland School District Two did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
The chairman of the district’s board of trustees, James Manning, told local media that the amount of force that Fields used appeared “excessive and unnecessary.”
“I’ve never seen anything so nasty looking, so sick, to the point that, you know, other students are turning away, don’t know what to do and are just scared for their lives,” Tony Robinson Jr., who recorded the incident, told local station WLTX.
With wire services