“When he came in the classroom, I immediately told my classmates, ‘Get your phones out, get your phones out. I think this is going to go downhill.’ And it did.” That’s what Spring Valley High School student Niya Kelly told CNN was on her mind when the school’s uniformed “Resource Officer” came into her classroom on Monday.

That’s very telling.

One of Niya’s classmates got in trouble for having a cell phone out. She responded with quiet defiance when she was reprimanded and when she was told to leave the classroom. So the school called in the cops.

That’s very telling.

Not that I needed any clues to tell me that what happened in that classroom was a sickening attack on a child. Yes, the child was being disobedient—peaceful and disobedient. And there were so many better ways for that to have been handled—with firmness and care—that would not have ended with the child being flipped over (while still in her desk) and then thrown across the floor.

Erika Sanzi, a former teacher and dean at an urban high school in Rhode Island and a colleague of mine at Education Post, wrote a very insightful blog about the incident. She wrote:

There were times when despite my quiet entry into a classroom and discreet request for a student to come with me, they refused. Sometimes after repeated requests and my best efforts, they still wouldn’t budge.


Never did I (or would I) put my hands on a defiant student in a threatening or violent way to get them to do what I wanted. My default strategy when dealing with this kind of defiance was to see if another adult in the building could have more success than I was having. Often adolescents respond better to someone else who is removed from the situation or who they may know better, like better, or trust more. I can’t think of a time when this strategy wasn’t ultimately successful.

A lot of what Erika wrote was reinforced during a conversation about the Spring Valley video I had with Mike Eaton, who is the chief of security for the Denver Public Schools and a former colleague. DPS has police officers (SROs) in most of its middle and high schools. And the district’s leadership cares a lot about how those SROs do their job. I know that from working with Mike, and it came through loud and clear when we talked.

“It’s all about what kind of culture there is in the school,” Mike said. “And that starts with the principal and the leadership team. The officer needs to be the right fit, someone who works well with the principal and with the kids and understands how to take on lots of different roles—a counselor, a mediator, a mentor, or an officer—depending on what the situation calls for. And the SRO should be part of the school’s leadership team and involved in everything at the school, not just called on when there’s trouble….I was refereeing a football game at TJ (Thomas Jefferson HS) the other night, and the school’s SRO was the team’s assistant coach. That was great to see.”

DPS works hard to make sure the presence of police officers in schools doesn’t widen the school-to-prison pipeline. And thanks to the leadership of the community group Padres y Jovenes Unidos and partnership with the Denver Police Department, DPS has been recognized as a national leader in reducing suspensions and police referrals. Mike emphasized that the school district’s SRO agreement with the police department clearly spells out that school officers are not to be called in to handle minor disciplinary issues.

And Erika and Mike both said exactly this about the Spring Valley incident: That officer should have never been called into that classroom.

The fact that he was tells you something about the culture in that school. The fact that Niya was worried about what might happen next tells you something about the relationships he had built with the students at that school, where he had worked for seven years (before being fired on Wednesday).

Oh, and Niya’s reward for sticking up for her classmate and objecting to the officer’s brutality? She was charged with a crime, something on the South Carolina books called—how’s this for a yawning expanse of law-enforcement leeway—“disturbing school.” A student charged with a crime for showing care and concern for a classmate.

That’s very telling…and chilling.