By now, most Americans with internet access or a TV set have seen the video documenting the vicious and unnecessary assault of a female student at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina.
Many were shocked by what they saw. What they saw was officer Ben Fields flipping the girl over while still she was seated at her desk and him throwing her across the room despite the fact that she had displayed no aggression or force towards him.
Was I disgusted by Ben Fields actions? Absolutely.
Was I surprised? Heck no.
I’ve been there.
I too know what it’s like to be attacked at school by an adult paid to protect me.
I also know what it’s like to be a child and to be told by the people who are supposed to know better than you that what happened to you was acceptable on some level.
I was a junior at William Jones College Prep High School; an elite public high school located downtown, Chicago.
During lunch period, an altercation broke out between two of my peers. The two young men were ‘roasting’ each other; (signifying, playing the dozens for those of you who aren’t familiar with the term). I sought to mediate and deescalate the tension. I stood up from my lunch room seat and peacefully positioned myself in between the 2 young men, hoping that my presence would neutralize the situation. One of the school security guards (let’s call him “Ryan”) stepped in and told the 3 of us to come with him to the assistant principal’s office.
Now it just so happens that on this particular day, both the principal and the assistant principal were out of the building, tending to administrative affairs.
This left security guard Ryan as the head honcho for the day.
Ryan situated himself behind the assistant principal’s desk as the 3 of us boys took to the metal folding chairs to await the next move.
Initially, Ryan does all the customary things you’d expect from from someone in his position. He’s trying to make sense out of what happened and decide on what the proper course of discipline should be.
He’s primarily talking to the other 2 boys since they were the centers of the conflict. At this point, I figured that I was just there to serve as witness to what happened. I did not for one second even consider that maybe I was in trouble. After all, I broke up the conflict. I was trying to help.
But I could not have been more wrong.
After completing his interrogation session, Ryan the security guard looks at me and says “OK. Now what are we going to tell your parents?” Sincerely confused by his question, I confidently shot back, “how about the truth!!?” I was most unnerved by the tone of his voice. It resembled that of The Joker, plotting with excitement on how to trip up Batman and didn’t at all sound like a responsible authority figure in search of the truth. It hadn’t been 15 minutes since he sat in the assistant principle’s chair and I could already see the magic spell that his temporary sense of power had cast upon him.
I had done nothing wrong. There was no way that anyone who had witnessed what had actually occurred could have cast me as anything but the wannabe peacemaker. However, Ryan the security guard proceeds to tell me that he’s going to call my parents and tell them that I instigated the lunch time dispute.
This was a lie.
I voiced my dissatisfaction with his suggestion.
I didn’t curse at him or yell at him. But what I did was worse.
I spoke up for myself.
I affirmed my refusal to relinquish the truth.
He asked “are you calling me a liar?”
I replied with a very confident but still very much offended
Ryan then makes an unexpected request.
“Stand up” he commanded.
I do as I’m told. Mr. Ryan then stands up and walks from behind the assistant principal’s desk. He had clearly been inhaling the intoxicating aroma of power that emanated from the desk’s scratched wood. I knew what he was going to do next.
Security guard Ryan approaches me and at this point we are literally standing toe to toe. He then asks me a most bizarre question.
“Are you a man?”.
It was as much of a threat as it was a question.
Now I have to put a brief pause on this story to let you know something..
I have to highlight the fact that this wasn’t some fast moving exchange with spur of the moment decision making with ‘do or die’ consequences.
Some media abuse apologist or Raven Symone type out there might question if I was really as respectful as I claim to have been; imagining the 16 year old me with “thug life” tattooed on my neck, grabbing my nuts and testing the limits of authority.
To the contrary. I was calm and physically compliant.
Mr. Ryan was very measured; almost zen-like.
This all happened VERY, VERY SLOWLY. At least slowly enough for most sane adults to behaved themselves accordingly.
My words may have questioned his integrity but there was nothing confrontational about my tone or my actions. He approached me. He asked me to stand up.
He stood toe to toe with me.
And as soon as I answered “yes” (“I am a man”),
He punched me.
Without flinching, he raised his fist and punched me in my jaw.
Right in front of the other 2 students.
He punched me.
I was 16
Without warning or justifiable reason, a man who was charged with the responsibility of protecting students and maintaining civility turned the AP’s office into a no-holds-barred ultimate fighting ring.
I took a very calm step back from this man and asked him
“you know you f#### up, right?”
My inquiry wasn’t as much of a threat as it was a genuine question.
Sure. On the inside I was grinning with teenage delight over the idea of what my father would say or do to this coward. I’d also be lying if I said that I didnt immediately imagine security gaurd Ryan becoming front page news and losing his job. But I was sincerely curious as to how this man could have been so obviously stupid to punch a student in front of two other students.
I left that office and headed straight for my favorite teacher’s classroom.
She was a music teacher and choir director.I knew that I could use the phone in her office to call my father and safely keep away from Mr. Ryan.
What I love about my father is that while he has always been my greatest protector, he didn’t automatically take my side . He knew that I was a kid.
He also knew that I could be a bit of a class clown and an occasional smart-ass. So when I told him that the security guard struck me he asked “yeah, but what did YOU do, William?”
This right here flies in this face of the lazy stereotype that our country assigns to parents, especially Black parents. So much attention is focused on making the negligent parents that are out there the symbols of raising children in America, that we disrespect the MAJORITY of parents who attempt to raise their children with manners, decency and accountability.
We blame parents for the lot of society’s ills and forget that it indeed takes a village to raise a child. But I digress.
My father eventually came to the school. A meeting was setup the next day. This time the principal and the assistant principal were present along with myself, my father and Mr. Ryan. Mr. Ryan is a big guy. He’s also the lead instructor of the marital arts club that meets after school.
Yet and still, he was noticeably shaken when he admitted in front of his superiors and my 6’4, 220 lb father that he did indeed hit his son without provocation or cause. To this day, I commend my father for his patience.
Many like to say what they would or wouldn’t have done, but my father understood that while beating the breaks off of Mr. Ryan was a tempting idea, causing any harm to him would have not only landed my father in jail but it would have justified Mr. Ryan’s attack on me. My dad knew that the responsible thing to do was to handle this situation through the proper channels.
Weeks went by. I didn’t see Mr. Ryan at school but my parents and I wanted to know what happened. What punishment was given to Ryan? Was he punished at all?
We were given the political runaround for a couple weeks. We were told that the nature of Ryan’s punishment couldn’t be disclosed because it was against either union rules or Chicago Public School’s policy. I forget which.
Finally, being equally as fed up as we were, a school official informed my dad that Mr. Ryan had been excused on a paid leave of absence.
If I had hit this man back even in natural self defense, under Chicago Public Schools infamously oppressive and draconian “zero tolerance” rules, I would have been expelled. No questions asked. Yet my adult assailant received a paid vacation.
A few weeks later,there was a regularly scheduled parent/teacher conference and in attendance would be then Chicago Public Schools superintendent, Arne Duncan.
Yes. That Arne Duncan.
If that name rings a bell for those of you who aren’t from Chicago, that’s because Arne Duncan is currently the United States Secretary of Education as appointed by President Barack Obama. Naturally my father chose this meeting as an opportunity to bring my assault to Mr. Duncan’s attention.
My father told Duncan that he often told my younger brother and I the value of doing the right thing and that he was concerned that after the punch to my face that Chicago Public Schools did not do the right thing by giving Mr. Ryan a paid vacation and then keeping that info from the victim and his family. He asked Mr.Duncan what he and the school had planned to do to right this wrong.
Arne Duncan then turned to his aides. They whispered amongst each other and then walked out the door. That is not an exaggeration. They left. Without any acknowledgement of the issue that this concerned parent raised.. without any official ending to the meeting.. Arne Duncan, the head of Chicago Public Schools performed the “too scared 2-step” and headed straight for the door.
The meeting was over.
The other parents and teachers were appalled.
I was betrayed by the system.
The organization that was supposed to hold kids like me and situations like mine at the center of it’s concerns turned it’s back on my assault and walked out of the door. Literally- walked out of the door.
That was it.
To Arne Duncan and the other powers that be, the reality of my assault was seen as a petty inconvenience. A reality to be hidden the same way you would conceal a tiny ketchup stain on the bottom part of your shirt cuff.
When Duncan walked out-
when my high school and CPS refused to punish Ryan the security gaurd,
when Mr. Ryan hit me-
those were 3 separate votes cast, placing a value on myself as a student and a child.
In a unanimous decision I was deemed worthless.
Our children, especially those in neglected schools within disenfranchised neighborhoods, are both consciously and subconsciously aware of our collective designation that they are worthless. This event happened to me at a high school of relative privilege so I can only imagine how kids must feel when they go to schools with over-crowded classrooms, underfunded infrastructure and administrators who treat them as problems before they see them as people. They intuitively understand that their lives don’t matter.
We ignore the legitimate fears and concerns of our children.
We blame children for the failings of adults.
This is the place of shame where we find America’s conscience and lack of moral integrity in Spring Valley High.
Instead of seeing the incident, purely for what it was; a teenaged, female student being attacked by a grown man while she was sitting down, there are many who allowed themselves to justify why this was ok.
Our hypocrisy on the issues of child abuse, abuse of power and male violence against women could not be more apparent. I thought that there was “no excuse” for a man to put his hands on a woman. Hmmm.. I suppose teenage students who remain seated at their desks are fair game…
What good are we as a nation if we can’t stand up for those who are beaten while they are sitting down? We look down our nationalistic noses at the disparity that occurs in so called third world countries. We view ourselves as being more civilized.
In my view, any country that routinely defends the needless assault and murder of children at the hands of adults, simply because those adults just so happen to wear badges for a living is not worthy to be called civilized.
If the prospects of our future are to be measured in part by our ability to protect the dignity of our children, our most valuable resource, then our future does not look bright at all.