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What we should learn from viral police videos

Former Senior Deputy Ben Fields is seen grabbing

Former Senior Deputy Ben Fields is seen grabbing a student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina Oct. 26, 2015. Photo Credit: AP

On the same day that President Barack Obama was expressing doubts that cellphone cameras are making police too cautious, video of a police officer in a South Carolina high school was going viral on the Web because he failed to be cautious enough.

That's not the only reason that video of sheriff's deputy Ben Fields' rough takedown and arrest of an uncooperative 16-year-old girl in Spring Valley High School raised a national uproar.

The fact that he is white and the girl is black instantly became part of the ongoing national debate about how black people are treated by police.

I had an additional question as a black parent: What did the girl do to bring this trouble on herself?

Yes, we can raise that question without becoming kneejerk apologists for police brutality -- or the troubles in our racial dialogue have become way more than skin deep.

Other African-Americans like CNN anchor Don Lemon and "The View" cohost Raven-Symone have sparked backlash from some quarters for raising similar questions. How dare they "sound like conservatives," I've heard some critics say.

But I raise the question as a black parent and a former black student whose own parents warned me to (1) obey my teachers and (2) don't go asking for a smack-down from police.

By that simple standard, can we acknowledge that both the teen and the cop behaved badly?

The student -- whose identity was withheld because of her age -- was told multiple times by her math teacher and a school administrator to leave the classroom for using her cell phone, according to Fields' boss, Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County.

When she refused, Fields was called in to remove her from the room, which he proceeded to do in a fashion that cannot in any way be described as gentle. On video shot by other students' cellphone cameras, Fields grabs the student's chair, flips her backwards out of her desk, drags her swiftly across the floor and tosses her across the room like a rag doll before he cuffs her hands behind her back.

As the sheriff put it, tossing a student across the room "is not a proper technique."

Two days later, the deputy was fired. The Justice Department also is investigating whether federal civil rights violations should be charged against Fields.

The girl also was charged with disrupting school. But, "(e)ven though she was wrong for disturbing the class, even though she refused to abide by the directions of the teacher, the school administrator and also the verbal commands of our deputy," Sheriff Lott said, "I'm looking at what our deputy did."

Indeed, the deputy is supposed to be the adult in this situation. In fact, the more we learn about the teen, the more complicated her life sounds. Her attorney Todd Rutherford said on Joe Madison's syndicated radio program that the girl's mother and grandmother are alive, contrary to earlier reports that she is an orphan. But he declined to comment on reports that she is currently in foster care. Either way, this teen's personal circumstances undoubtedly call for something better than physical assault.

All of which raises larger questions about the purpose of "resource officers" in schools. The numbers of police officers in school understandably mushroomed into the thousands after the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado and other mass shootings in schools.

The disciplinary roles of such officers should be limited to serious crimes, not routine misbehavior that traditionally has been handled by teachers and administrators. Yet, as a recent report in The New York Times concluded, "physical confrontations between officers and students in schools are not as unusual as they once were."

For example, the ACLU sued a Kentucky school district this summer after an officer shackled children aged 8 and 9. Heartbreaking video on the Times website shows a little boy -- who happens to be white -- handcuffed to a chair and left alone in a room, crying his eyes out.

Punitive approaches to childhood education serve to feed new youngsters into the school-to-prison pipeline instead of productive law-abiding adulthood. The proper role of police, the viral videos are telling us, should be to protect our kids, not to raise them.

Clarence Page at