“I was crying, like literally screaming, crying like a baby,” said Niya Kenny, the 18-year-old student who was arrested by Deputy Ben Fields after objecting to his assault of her 16-year-old classmate on Monday, October 26. “I’d never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl,” Kenny told South Carolina news station WLTX.
Other students present that day in her Spring Valley High School class were also in disbelief at the events unfolding so quickly before them. Tony Robinson, Jr., a student who recorded Deputy Field’s jarring assault on a teenage girl, describes the experience as scary in an interview with the same news station. “I’ve never seen anything so nasty looking, so sick to the point that you know, other students are turning away, don’t know what to do, and are just scared for their lives,” Robinson said. “That’s supposed to be somebody that’s going to protect us. Not somebody that we need to be scared of, or afraid,” he added.
But there they were, a class full of teenagers, watching an officer of the law wrap his arm around a girl’s neck, slam her chair and desk backward onto the floor while she was still seated, drag her several inches, and then toss her to the front of the classroom. In a familial setting, they would call this domestic violence–a sight no child should have to see. A sight that can be traumatic for children and teens who witness it.
The assault at Spring Valley High School forces us to examine the terrors that Black children face in their day-to-day lives, both in school and outside of it. According to the young lady’s attorney Todd Rutherford, a Democratic House Minority Leader, the student is “devastated and emotionally traumatized” from this staggering event. Rutherford also says the teen has suffered injuries to her head, neck, and back.
The actions of Deputy Fields highlights an uncomfortable and horrifying truth that Americans have been forced to face since a sociopath shot up a dark movie theater and a racist gunned down worshippers in a church: there is no safe place–not our streets, not our movie theaters, not our churches, and definitely not our schools. That goes double for Black Americans.
We are disproportionately more likely to be stopped and searched while driving compared to whites, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights; six times as likely as whites to be incarcerated, according to the NAACP; and three times as likely to be killed by a police officer, according to research conducted by the Mapping Police Violence Project.
As a community, Black people have long dispensed with the delusion that our children would be safe out in the streets or in the hands of police officers in public spaces, the names of Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice and countless others serving as a reminder of that fact.
Yet, somehow we have continued to trust and hold on to the belief that our children would be safe in school surrounded by faculty, and in some cases, guarded by police officers whose primary job it is to protect them from the threat of violence. Instead, our trust was met with betrayal and the illusion of safety shattered by the actions of men like Deputy Fields, who demonstrate to us, absolutely, that our children are not safe in schools and especially not safe from the police.
The effect of all these things taken together and repeated continuously is trauma, pointing to our skin color as the problem. The students at Spring Valley High have been exposed directly to an event that could alter their psyche. Suffering violence at hands of police officers and witnessing violence at the hands of police officers are recognized forms of trauma by the American Psychological Association, as is racism. Worse still, the teenagers at Spring Valley have experienced such a thing in a place where they have come to better themselves, gain some amount of reprieve from the challenges of their home lives, and feel safe surrounded by cops.
Sadly, the assault at Spring Valley is not the only traumatic event the students have experienced but one that served to compound the race-based traumas they experience daily through systemic racism and images of Black people killed by cops, shredded in the media, and mishandled by the law. Race-based trauma is defined simply as the effects of racism in an in-depth Atlanta Black Star article exploring race-based trauma, PTSD, and the African-American community.
The article cites Dr. Donna Y. Ford, Professor of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University, as attesting to the detriment of race-based trauma. “Yes, I believe it is more than reasonable and justified to say that racism can and does contribute to some degree of PTSD among students. This has been found in a few studies, including two recent ones in the last two months. The American Psychological Association has also written reports on the toll that racism takes on victims of all ages,” Ford said.
In addition to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, and depression, the doctor enumerates the other effects of trauma on students. “The effects can be seen in students’ distrust, anxiety and stress, lack of confidence in schools, lowered motivation, decreased self-esteem, concept, and racial pride, to name a few,” she said.
The findings of Dr. Ford are supported in the article by the research of Dr. Raja Staggers-Hakim, a Medical Sociologist and Assistant Professor of Health Sciences and Leadership at Sacred Heart University. Dr. Staggers-Hakim conducted research with young men ages 14-21 on the impact of police killings.
“The young African American and Latino boys who I spoke to were justifiably concerned for their well-being and their safety. There was constant concern of being brutalized under mistaken identity and the need to be hyper-vigilant in their actions out of fear that an officer may assume that they are doing something wrong or illegal,” Staggers-Hakim said.
And then there’s the more obvious, well-known trauma that the young girl at Spring Valley High School was experiencing in the midst of the assault– the trauma of death. A New York Daily News article revealed that the girl recently lost her mother, a tragedy that resulted in her placement in a foster home. A sudden separation from loved ones or caretakers and placement in a new home environment, incidentally, can also be a traumatic experience for children and teens.
The revelations about the young woman’s background are enough to heap coals of shame on the heads of those who have blamed her for the assault against her. They have also given us a glimpse into the damage potentially done to this child that would have been overlooked if the events that Monday had been swept under the rug and dismissed as a necessary action in the absence of recorded video footage.
And so we see Black children beset on all sides by traumatic forces hindering their growth, damaging their trust, destroying their confidence, and diminishing their ability to excel.
In her book Trauma and Recovery, Judith Lewis Herman writes that “The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.” No doubt, Herman’s words are exemplified in Niya Kenny, who sat in disbelief as she watched an officer slam her younger classmate to the ground and cried out for him to stop to no avail.