Spring Valley student arrest prompts new talks on school policing, discipline

On Oct. 26. 2015, Senior Deputy Ben Fields forcibly removed a student from her chair after she refused to leave her math class at Spring Valley High in Columbia. A summit in Columbia this week brought education and law enforcement leaders together for a new discussion on discipline in schools.

When video footage emerged of a sheriff’s deputy flipping and dragging a student out of her desk at Spring Valley High in Columbia last fall, politicians, parents and activists began questioning the role of police in schools.

As the public uproar began to fade, Anderson County School Board member Gary Burgess saw an opportunity to have constructive conversations between educators and law enforcement leaders on how best to handle juvenile discipline and crime problems.

“I said, ‘We need to have a conversation so people will understand how this is perceived,’ ” Burgess said. “It wasn’t about race, but it became about race. It wasn’t about breaking a rule, but it was.”

Burgess helped organize the National Summit of Schools, Communities and Law Enforcement, held Monday and Tuesday at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center. Education and law enforcement leaders shared ideas about building trust in minority communities and trying new approaches to in-school discipline.

Garry L. McFadden, a retired homicide detective with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, explained how his “Cops and Barbers” program has worked to build strong relationships with students, activists and even gang members. Officers there have taken small groups of young men to talk over dinner at local restaurants, hosted community forums that include the police department’s most strident critics and gone into high schools once a month to talk about their work.

Fairfield County School Board member Annie McDaniel said she had food for thought after McFadden’s session Tuesday morning.

“I love the approach that he used because his approach is to talk to the people that you’re trying to impact — don’t talk at them, talk to them — and then listen to them,” McDaniel said. “He just used common sense: What would I like done with my child?”

Pickens County school leaders gave a presentation on their adoption of Restorative Justice, a disciplinary approach that seeks creative solutions to student behavior problems rather than punitive ones. Students who misbehave in Restorative Justice schools often must make restitution and speak with the people they have offended face to face.

Intervention Specialist James Adams said a principal had recently caught 26 students spray painting obscene graffiti on their school building and parking lot in what he called a “massive senior prank.” Rather than expel the students or forbid them from walking the stage at graduation, the principal had the students clean the school campus for an entire day and set up the stage and parking barricades for graduation.

Pickens County Superintendent Danny Merck said he is working to expand Restorative Justice to the entire district.

“When you stand in front of someone and say you love someone and you love them too much to see them fail, that’s a better conversation,” Merck said.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.