When I first watched the 15-second video of former Resource Officer Ben Fields flipping and then throwing a high school student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina, I felt sick to my stomach. I was disgusted and I was angry, but I did not cry. I shook my head and thought about how the girl’s defiance could have been handled differently. I imagined the ways the situation could have been de-escalated, but instead was escalated by a man tasked with keeping children safe. Then I went on with my day as usual.
Children in Foster Care
Days later, I learned that students at the school were protesting the firing of the officer. When I read the article, I was heartbroken to discover that the girl in the video is in foster care. As I watched the video again, I was crushed by a torrent of emotion. I sobbed out loud as I recalled all of the challenges and despair in our home over the past few months. I knew, without a doubt, that the girl in the video could have been our daughter.
I am the white mother of a black daughter who is in foster care. And our daughter is out of control. There is no sugarcoating it because everyone who interacts with her sees it. She is rude, she is mean, she is defiant, she is belligerent, and she is disruptive in school. To quote her teacher, “She looks for altercations.” She is the girl in the video, but our daughter is only 10 years old.
What I want you to know about our daughter, and most children in foster care, is that she is in severe pain. The world outside of our home may only see an angry, insolent child who seems to seek out conflict at every turn, but we know the deep hurt that she feels every day. She can’t explain her rage or her actions. She is a lost child who has literally and figuratively been beaten down over and over again by people who were supposed to love and care for her.
I see our daughter in the high school girl in the video because that could be her in eight years. There is no guarantee that our daughter will ever overcome her challenges. Even with therapy, support, and a loving family, the extreme experiences of her past may always torment her and cause her to remain angry with the world.
The Officer’s Actions
I can speak to the actions of former Officer Ben Fields, because I have been in his position. My daughter’s teacher, dean, and principal have been in that position with my daughter as well, and in every single case of outright defiance we have chosen to de-escalate the situation. I know that in those moments, adrenaline is pumping, and empathy and understanding are difficult, if not impossible, to access, but I commend my child’s teachers and the school staff for always giving my daughter a way out. They are properly trained in de-escalation techniques, but, more importantly, they care about her.
Let’s imagine that the girl was brazenly defiant, disruptive, and disrespectful. Let’s say that there was absolutely no way that the class could continue given her behavior. Does that warrant a man physically removing her? In what scenario in the real world is it ever okay for one person to strike out against and injure another person because of her words? In the world I live in, that is called assault and I pray to God that we do not continue to make exceptions, or redefine that word, because of a badge.
The grace and empathy I want to extend to Ben Fields is the understanding of the pressure he was under in the situation. A teacher had called him in to regain control of the classroom and many eyes were on him in that moment. However, instead of abating the situation with a cool head, he chose to assert his authority and demand compliance, which then lead to the incident.
What angers me about the comments from countless supporters of the officer is that they see his actions as justified. They sincerely believe that he had no other options. The truth is that both the teacher and the officer had options at that moment and I would like to point a few of them out:
- Defeat (Option 1): Allow the girl to remain on her phone. Have the officer stay in the class to ensure she doesn’t continue to be disruptive. Handle the discipline of the student after class.
- Defeat (Option 2): Stop the class. Tell the kids that class cannot continue due to the girl’s behavior, but that she would be facing serious consequences for her actions
- Retreat: Have the class leave the room and continue somewhere else so disciplinary staff could then come in and talk to the disruptive student.
These are the options I came up with as a mom with a challenging child. I have never been trained in de-escalation or any other techniques.
It frightens me that students in the school support the actions of the officer because it shows a lack of empathy for a struggling fellow classmate and that they have a grievous misunderstanding of the proper and lawful conduct of a trained police officer. I appreciate that the protesting students may like the officer and dislike the girl who is disruptive in class. But, what I wish I could make those students—and the world—understand is that you can love and support a person, a police officer even, and not condone his poor choices in a tense and difficult situation.
Moreover, I wish that I could paint a vivid picture for those students of what it would feel like to be that girl in the video—to understand that children in foster care have had everything they’ve ever known ripped away in an instant. I wonder if they could ever even comprehend the heartache of losing the two most important people in their lives, grandma and mom, like the girl in their high school, and then be forced to live with strangers? Would they understand that the lack of security in her life would cause her to act out? That the trauma the girl has experienced could have caused her to hate the world, her school, her peers, and, most of all, authority?
Could one passionate mom help them to fathom that when you have absolutely no control over your life and you don’t know where you will live or what will happen to you from one day to the next, you grab on to anything that you can control and hold onto, and that “thing,” the one that you can’t let go of and sends you over the edge, might be a cell phone during math class?
For the sake of our wounded children, I hope so.