Study shows opinions divided by race on school resource officers, police use of force

WIS EXTENDED COVERAGE: Video shows Spring Valley school resource officer slamming, dragging student out of desk
Published: Aug. 23, 2016 at 1:08 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 25, 2016 at 4:13 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - People of different races are split in the decision to fire a school resource officer for the way he handled a disruptive student at Spring Valley High School in 2015, according to a study conducted at the University of South Carolina.

Tuesday the University of South Carolina College of Arts and Sciences Institute for Public Service and Policy Research released the results of its survey titled: Attitudes about Police Officers in Schools in the Aftermath of the Spring Valley High School Controversy.

In October 2015, a video surfaced of former Richland County Sheriff's Deputy working as a school resource officer violently removing a student from her desk at Spring Valley High School. The teacher asked Deputy Ben Fields to remove the student from the classroom for being disruptive.

WEB EXTRA: Watch the three angles of the incident: Angle 1 | Angle 2 | Angle 3

The survey was conducted via telephone starting on October 29, 2015, by random calls to 334 randomly-selected adults in South Carolina.

Monique Lyle, Ph.D, who compiled the survey, wanted to assess the public's reaction to events during the incident at Spring Valley High School in 2015.

"It also ignited national and intra-state discussions about the role of police officers in our schools," she said. "Hence, it was a timely issue of both national and statewide importance; and we felt the citizens of our state, who have been directly affected by these events, deserved to be heard on these matters."

"This report summarizes the major findings from the study and examines differences in attitudes between Blacks and Whites (sic)," reads the report.

"It was quite interesting to see the differences between Black respondents and White respondents in our study," Dr. Lyle said.

When asked if Richland County made the correct decision in firing Deputy Ben Fields after the incident, reaction was split by race.

Of the white people who responded, 48.1% said the county made the right decision, but 80.8% of black respondents agreed the right decision was made. 34.6% of whites said they thought the county made the wrong decision compared to 11.5% of black people surveyed who thought so.

The survey then addresses the issue of law enforcement officers assigned to schools. Nearly 76% of the people surveyed agreed that permanently assigning police to schools is a good way to reduce rates of juvenile crime. However, this was split by the race also.

About 80% of whites agreed with the statement compared to the agreement of about 63% of black people questioned.

When asked, "In general, do you think police are too quick to use force, or do they use force only when necessary?" the response was overwhelmingly split among racial lines.

While 73% of black people surveyed thought police were too quick to use force, nearly 25% of white people had the same response.

The races were a bit closer in agreement when it came to the question: "Do you think it is mostly a good thing or mostly a bad thing that more interactions between individuals and police officers are being recorded on camera?" Nearly 97% of black people said it is a good thing, along with nearly 86% of white people with the same opinion.

"Black and White respondents had both heard a great deal about the events at Spring Valley, they reached very different conclusions about whether former Deputy Fields should have been fired for his conduct," Lyle said. "Also, there were notable differences in Black and White respondents' opinions about School Resource Officers. In particular, though both Black and White respondents mostly feel that permanently assigning police officers to schools reduces juvenile crime and enhances safety, they have different perceptions about whether permanently assigning police officers to schools creates barriers between students and police—most Black respondents agreed that permanently assigning police officers to schools creates barriers between students and police, whereas most White respondents disagreed. This suggests that Black South Carolinians may be a bit more ambivalent about permanently assigning police officers to schools, whereas White respondents are more consistently positive about permanently assigning police officers to schools."

The study concludes:

"Overall, in the aftermath of the controversial events that occurred at Spring Valley High School in the fall of 2015, this study found that, while Black and White South Carolinians generally agree on multiple points pertaining to police officers in school and police interactions, their views on these matters are hardly identical and, on some issues, there are in fact sharp differences between these two groups. Most striking among these differences are those observed in attitudes about the firing of Deputy Ben Fields, whether permanently assigning police officers to schools creates barriers between students and police, and whether police are too quick to use force."

Lyle said: "Based on the data, two takeaways appear to be: (1) going forward, it may be incumbent upon police officers in our schools to convince parents that, in addition to reducing juvenile crime and enhancing safety, they are also capable of fostering positive relationships between students and law enforcement, and that they indeed hope to foster positive relationships between students and law enforcement, rather than creating barriers between students and law enforcement; and (2) many of the respondents (a plurality of respondents overall and the vast majority of Black respondents) feel that what we all saw in the widely-circulated videos of former Deputy Fields forcibly removing a student from her classroom in not consistent with what they feel is appropriate conduct for police officers in our schools."

Earlier this month the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of South Carolina's "disturbing schools" law. One of the plaintiffs was arrested as a result of the incident at Spring Valley High School.

In December, a Federal judge dismissed a criminal complaint against former deputy Fields.

Click here to read the results of the survey.

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