The Facebook video played out like an advertisement for the school-to-prison pipeline.
A Richmond police officer, from his marked police SUV, yelled at a group of Albert Hill Middle School students: “Wait until your asses turn 18, then it’s mine.”
A girl in the group caught the threat on video. A parent of another student, Tenesha Calloway, posted it on Facebook. Cue the justifiable outrage from the community and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney.
Last Thursday, interim Police Chief William Smith announced that the officer is facing disciplinary action, must undergo remedial training, and has been removed from the neighborhood he was patrolling when the incident occurred.
But you might argue that the video simply reflects what’s going on inside our schools, where police patrol the halls and matters previously handled by teachers and principals now result in students being referred to law enforcement.
“You find that at a very young age, even the smallest infractions are treated as criminal,” said Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar and author of “The New Jim Crow,” in an interview by PBS’s Frontline. “You’re criminalized at a young age, and you learn to expect that that’s your destiny. You, one way or another, are going to jail.”
In an era of mass school shootings and an increased desire for security, we’ve placed police officers in schools. It’s not always a comfortable fit.
Recently, in Chesterfield County, a school resource officer was removed from majority-minority L.C. Bird High School — and Chesterfield’s police chief, Col. Jeffrey Katz, recommended his firing — after an antifa branch alleged he was a neo-Nazi.
In a statement after the Albert Hill video was posted, Stoney said he trusted the department to “conduct a quick and thorough investigation and respond accordingly.”
But this situation calls for more than the police policing the police. Richmond Public Schools needs to not only investigate this incident, but re-evaluate its relationship with the police.
The students in the video should not have been having such an exchange with a police officer, because such back talk down the road could have fatal consequences.
“The talk” about how to respond when pulled over by police has become a rite of passage for black parents and their children. Verbal restraint is advised in transactions with an armed authority figure. This is a habit that should be developed early.
Beyond that, the officer’s response — which essentially placed him on the same maturity level as a middle schooler — is unacceptable and the antithesis of “community policing.”
Outside of Albert Hill, the lone adult in the situation needed to act like one.
“Clearly, this officer’s response to whatever the students said is inappropriate and threatening,” said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. “It is an example of the systemic racism that confronts students of color daily and requires more than an individual officer’s ‘apology’ and remedial education, particularly where the disciplinary numbers continue to reflect significant racial disparities.
“There is a larger problem here than one officer’s prejudice and discriminatory behavior toward students of color,” she added.
Data released by the U.S. Department of Education in April 2018 showed that while black students made up 15 percent of national enrollment in 2015-16, they accounted for 31 percent of students referred to law enforcement or arrested that year. And every Richmond-area school division had law enforcement referral rates at or worse than the national average.
“So, yes, I think that this is a symptom of the racist system that informs and feeds our school-to-prison pipeline — a symptom of a disease that will not be cured by adding more police to schools than counselors,” Gastañaga said Monday.
Adeola Ogunkeyede, legal director of the Civil Rights & Racial Justice Program at the Legal Aid Justice Center, condemned the officer’s actions last week.
“The threat of this officer portends future harm to these children at the hands of police that could prove fatal,” Ogunkeyede said. “Statements like these from members of the police department undermine the trust black children and their community will have in the police, perhaps forever. This proves that RPD’s alleged commitment to community policing is meaningless and that community oversight to ensure that commitment is necessary.”
Meanwhile, the Richmond School Board should be demanding answers from the Richmond Police Department instead of taking its typically passive approach.
School Board Chairwoman Dawn Page says they are are working to ensure the students’ concerns “are addressed appropriately.”
Richmond’s school leadership — especially given the existing discipline disparities — cannot sit idly as its students are sucked into the criminal justice pipeline or threatened by a police officer.
The school district can advocate and investigate on behalf of its students or be tacit enablers of future abuse.