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Bay area experts: Clearing classroom is the best strategy when faced with an uncooperative student

In an image made from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student, Senior Deputy Ben Fields tries to forcibly remove a student who refused to leave her high school math class, in Columbia S.C. The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation Tuesday. The video shows Fields flipped the student backward in her desk and tossed her across the floor. [Associated Press]
In an image made from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student, Senior Deputy Ben Fields tries to forcibly remove a student who refused to leave her high school math class, in Columbia S.C. The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation Tuesday. The video shows Fields flipped the student backward in her desk and tossed her across the floor. [Associated Press]
Published Oct. 28, 2015

The viral video from a South Carolina high school shows a police officer violently grabbing a girl as she sat at her desk, flipping her backward and then flinging her forward.

How could the scene have been avoided?

Absent emergency circumstances, such as a gun threat, a more appropriate reaction to a belligerent student would be clearing the room, Tampa Bay area education and law enforcement officials said Tuesday.

"Most kids act differently when their friends are not watching," said Renalia DuBose, a professor at Western Michigan University Cooley Law School and a former school district administrator for Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

Hillsborough County school leaders are trained to handle non-criminal classroom activity administratively, district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said. That has meant treating the classroom as if it were the front office if necessary, bringing in counselors and even parents to talk with the disruptive student while the rest of the class heads elsewhere.

"We can use great discretion when it comes to a student and it's not a criminal matter," Arja said. "Last resort is having law enforcement come down."

When an officer does get called in, it's usually only after the efforts of a school monitor, followed by an assistant principal or principal, fail to make a difference, said St. Petersburg Police spokesman Mike Puetz.

Physical force is used when verbal warnings aren't working, and Puetz said it could be something like an officer grabbing a student by the arm to escort them out of class.

"If a student turns violent, that ups the situation significantly," he said.

He, too, noted that protocol calls for an officer to evacuate students before using physical force. It helps make sure other students don't get caught in the middle of a disruptive or violent situation.

Deciding whether a situation warrants police intervention is different inside a school than outside it, said DuBose, who will lead a "Responding to a Law Enforcement Encounter" forum Monday at Middleton High School in Tampa.

On the streets, officers must have probable cause. The 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case New Jersey vs. T.L.O. affirmed school officials' reliance on reasonable suspicion, as long as they are not acting as agents of law enforcement.

"The question that needs to be asked is, was that officer reasonable?" DuBose said. "In light of mass shootings in schools, the threshold of what's reasonable is becoming lower and lower."

That does not mean expecting an officer to use force for "normal teenage obstinance," she added.

To help their own cause, students must understand the rules, though.

Florida law is clear: The adults in schools are in charge, not the children.

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State statute invests principals with running their schools, including the authority to "remove disobedient, disrespectful, violent, abusive, uncontrollable, or disruptive students from the classroom and the school bus."

"What I tell students to do, what I told my own children, is, 'Remember, you're not the boss of the school,'" DuBose said. "'Respond appropriately to a reasonable request. If there's a problem, your parents need to come deal with that. But when a teacher tells you to move, you move.'"

Staff writer Ayana Stewart contributed to this story. Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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