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A Year After The Assault At Spring Valley, One Student Turns Her Pain Into Progress

“I am comfortable with people knowing I’m the girl who stood up,” says Niya Kenny.

10/23/2016 08:03 am ET
American Civil Liberties Union
Niya Kenny, 19, was arrested after she stood up for a fellow student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina in October 2015.

Niya Kenny had never heard of the school-to-prison pipeline until it came to her classroom.

Kenny was sitting in math class last October at her high school in Columbia, South Carolina, when a student sitting a few rows away got into a verbal squabble with their teacher. When the 16-year-old student, named Shakara, resisted the teacher and a school administrator’s instructions, the adults called on a school cop for assistance. 

What happened next became the subject of a U.S. Department of Justice investigation, two arrests and several cell phone videos that received millions of views online. The cop flipped Shakara and her desk to the ground, violently dragged her across the floor and put her in handcuffs.

Unlike her classmates, Kenny was unwilling to stand idly by. She encouraged her peers to film the incident and yelled at the cop for using so much force on a child. When the dust settled, Kenny and Shakara were arrested under a vague South Carolina law that makes it illegal for students to “disturb” schools

A year later, the incident has become one of the highest-profile examples of the dangers of stationing cops in school. And Kenny, now a high school graduate living in Brooklyn, doesn’t want anyone to forget its lesson. 

Kenny is currently interning at the nonprofit African American Policy Forum, working alongside Kimberlé Crenshaw, the organization’s co-founder and a professor of law at the University of California, Los Angeles and Columbia. Together, they have been working to raise awareness about how the school-to-prison-pipeline impacts all students, but especially students like Kenny ― that is, black girls. 

The school-to-prison pipeline is the idea that harsh school discipline policies help push students out of school and into the criminal justice system. Activists say cops are part of this problem. In recent decades, the number of cops placed in schools has risen dramatically. With this increase, more teenage misbehavior is being met with arrest records and court dates as opposed to detention and trips to the principal’s office. 

Crenshaw believes that girls of color are overlooked in conversations about justice and discipline in schools. The focus tends to be on boys. But girls face the double bind of both racist and sexist stereotypes. 

Indeed, research from Crenshaw shows that black girls were suspended at six times the rate of white girls during the 2011-2012 school year. Black boys ― while still disproportionately disciplined ― were suspended at three times the rate of their white counterparts. 

“Niya’s case alone is simply a powerful example about how leadership skills and courage and the ability to reason right from wrong ... get turned into a justification for bringing them into the juvenile justice system,” said Crenshaw. “[Black] girls in particular tend to run into trouble because they’re seen as defiant, they’re seen as having an attitude or being in need of discipline rather than being rewarded and recognized for exercising leadership.”

Kenny is proud of her role in trying to stop police abuse at Spring Valley High School that day. She wasn’t always so sure, though. After getting arrested, she was led out to a paddy wagon in front of her classmates. She spent hours in jail. 

“That day everything was going down, I felt like I did the wrong thing. I kept telling myself, ‘You should have just sat down and just been quiet,’” said Kenny, whose charges were later dropped. “But speaking up and being arrested and everything, it just brought so much awareness to the school-to prison-pipeline. Honestly, if I could go back, I wouldn’t change anything. It was like the universe brought me there that day.”

After the incident, Kenny decided to leave Spring Valley High School. She spent time in a local charter school before withdrawing and opting to get her GED, said her mother, Doris Ballard. Kenny is now thinking about applying to college.

“The incident, it was very embarrassing. She was arrested, she was handcuffed in front of her peers. She was walked out of school in handcuffs like a criminal,” said Ballard. “The only thing she did was speak up for another student who she didn’t feel was treated right.”

Ballard and Kenny hope the suffering has not been in vain. In August, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit on Kenny’s behalf challenging the South Carolina law that allows the state to prosecute students for disrupting school. The cop involved in the incident was ultimately fired from his job, although he did not face criminal charges

Although Kenny faced a traumatizing scenario, she has poured her trauma into activism. Similarly, Ballard has gotten involved with Every Black Girl, a campaign inspired by the Spring Valley incident that aims to empower young girls. 

“It just opened up a whole new world for us. It introduced us to a lot more things going on in the community and heightened our awareness. We were living an ordinary life before this happened. Day to day, going to work, going to school, life. But now that this happened it just made us aware of all the issues dealing with the school-to-prison-pipeline,” said Ballard. 

Kenny never expected to become part of a larger movement. She just wanted to stand up when she saw a classmate in harm’s way. But in the year since, she has become a powerful voice in making sure girls of color are treated equitably in schools. 

“I feel like people are more aware of the issues that young black females face now, because its actually caught on camera this time. It wasn’t just a he-said, she-said, situation,” said Kenny. “Before I was involved in that situation I had never heard of the school-to-prison pipeline. That’s actually come to the light now. It’s not a conversation that’s overlooked.”


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Obama Administration To Schools: Stop Using Police To Enforce Rules

School-based police officers should mentor and support students, not push them into prison.

09/08/2016 12:14 am ET | Updated Sep 08, 2016

Two weeks ago, civil rights groups in Richmond, Virginia, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over the treatment of black students in local schools. The district’s black students are disproportionately targeted by police officers who work in the schools, the complaint alleges. One student in the complaint, a 13-year-old with disabilities named J.R., was violently restrained on the ground by a school-based police officer for allegedly clenching his hands into fists.  

One week ago, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a similar complaint with the Department of Education and Department of Justice on behalf of students in Pinellas, Florida. Many kids in Pinellas County Schools are victims of discriminatory police practices, the complaint alleges, under which black students and students with disabilities are disproportionately arrested and subjected to police methods like pepper spray.

These complaints come nearly a year after a school-based police officer at Spring Valley High School flipped a student out of her chair in South Carolina; half a year after a school-based police officer was caught hitting a child in Baltimore; and five months after a video showed a school-based police officer in Texas body-slamming a 12-year-old girl to the ground. 

These troubling examples are just some of the ways that putting police in schools can have disastrous effects. On Thursday, the Department of Education and Department of Justice announced a new tool designed to address some of these issues.

Over the past two decades, the number of police officers stationed in K-12 schools has risen dramatically in the name of student safety. The federal government has contributed to this rise in school-based police officers ― also called school resource officers, or SROs ― by funding between 100 and 150 such positions each year through DOJ’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services. The vast majority of the roughly 19,000 school resource officer positions in K-12 institutions, however, are funded on the state or local level. 

On Thursday, the COPS office announced that it will require local police agencies to follow a new rubric if they want to receive federal funding for the hiring of school resource officers. Although only a small sliver of school resource officers are funded through the federal government, leaders say they hope the new rubric will guide school districts and police agencies across the country in developing and evaluating their school resource officer programs.

The rubric, called the Safe School-based Enforcement through Collaboration, Understanding, and Respect, recommends that school districts and police agencies develop formalized partnerships before placing police in schools. These partnerships should clearly delineate the role of school police officers and use data to evaluate the effectiveness of existing partnerships. The rubric also recommends that agencies effectively train school resource officers on how to work with kids, and teach them about implicit bias and childhood development.

“In some schools, [school resource officers] have become the disciplinarians.”U.S. Secretary of Education John King

Another rubric describes how state leaders can use policy to support these goals. 

“The primary role of the SRO should be to build trust between students and law enforcement and to keep students safe,” U.S. Education Secretary John King said Wednesday during a call with reporters. “But in some schools, SROs have become the disciplinarians, instead of better equipping teachers to address misbehavior and help students learn and grow from their mistakes.”

“Someschools are simply turning misbehaving students over to SROs,” King went on. “This can lead to citations or arrest, and set students on a path to dropping out of school or even to prison.”

The federal agencies also sent letters to various leaders of higher education institutions and college police chiefs, urging them to think deeply about the role of security on campus and to consider the recommendations of the President’s Task Force On 21st Century Policing.

“Beyond K-12 schools, the national issues related to community and police relations, racial justice and officer and public safety also reverberate on college campuses,” King said. “Campus police face many of the same challenges as their local police counterparts.”

School resource officers typically report to a commanding officer at a local police agency. Most states do not require these officers to get any special training in working with kids before they’re placed in schools. As a result, adolescent misbehavior in schools is sometimes met with serious, adult consequences. An August analysis from The Huffington Post and The Hechinger Report found that SROs have used stun guns or Tasers on at least 84 students in the past five years. Indeed, research shows that just the presence of a police officer in school increases the likelihood that a student will be referred to law enforcement for any one of a range of behaviors, including theft and vandalism. 

However, when given the proper training and support, school police officers can serve as positive mentors and play an important role in school communities, King said. There is little data on how school resource officers tangibly affect school safety. Still, Ronald Davis, director of the COPS program, cited school resource officers as an example of the type of community policing that helps build trust between families and law enforcement. 

“We know the relationships work,” Davis told reporters during Wednesday’s call. “This has been the principal of community policing for three generations, that police and community working together always works better.”


Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. In particular, she is drilling down into the programs and innovations that are trying to solve these problems. Tips?


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I really hope that Miss Miyah Kenny does go on the college and I hope that Miss Shanka has not allowed the COWARDLY actions of a non-man, woman-beater, child abuser, racist cop to deter her in anyway from learning, completing school and going on to college.

I didn't see anything in the article that says that thebogus, trumped up, racist, abuse of authority, and abuse of process charges were dropped against Miss Kenny.

Racist cops that abuse their authority and who abuse process of the law rely on the Black people that they do harass, brutalize, torture, wrongfully arrest, wrongfully charge, will not be able to afford an adequate defense against police violating their Constitutional and Civil Rights, and neither do the families of the Black people murder.  

But, even with adequate defense, the entire system is systemically racist to the core, and racist Whites throughout the whole system, from the cops, to the juries, to the prosecutors, to the judges, CONSPIRE against JUSTICE for Black people.


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