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FBI, Justice Department investigating S.C. police officer who threw student across classroom

Richland County, S.C., Sheriff's Deputy Ben Fields slammed a student to the ground and dragged her through the classroom. (Video: Reginald Seabrooks/YouTube)

Federal authorities opened a civil rights investigation Tuesday into a South Carolina incident depicted in videos showing a police officer throwing a high school student across a classroom.

Numerous videos recorded inside of Richland County’s Spring Valley High quickly spread on social media Monday afternoon, sparking outrage amid an ongoing national debate on how law enforcement interacts with the communities they police.

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the FBI in Columbia, S.C., and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for South Carolina are conducting a civil rights probe into the circumstances surrounding the arrest of the student.

“The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence in order to determine whether a federal law was violated,” a Justice spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday.

The incident in a math classroom involved a white officer and a black female student, who was arrested for disturbing schools, according to the sheriff’s department.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who requested the independent criminal probe, said at a Tuesday news conference he was “shocked and disturbed” by what the short video showed.

Officials also have uncovered another video, recorded from a different angle, showing the student resisting, “hitting the student resource officer with her fist and striking him,” Lott said. “What she does is not what I’m looking at; what I’m looking at is what our student resource officer did.”

Lott added: “She bears some responsibility. If she had not disturbed the school, disturbed the class, we would not be standing here today. It started with her, and ended with my deputy.”

The deputy involved, who the sheriff’s department identified as Ben Fields, has been suspended without pay. Results from the department’s internal investigation could come as early as Wednesday.

Fields, a school resource officer, did not return requests for comment Tuesday. An attorney representing Fields in a separate civil case declined to comment on his behalf.

The videos circulating publicly don’t depict the moments leading up to the officer grabbing the student, and school officials declined to provide details, citing the ongoing investigation.

Lott said a teacher repeatedly asked the student to put her phone away, and the student “became verbally disrespectful.” The teacher and an assistant principal both asked the student to leave the classroom before asking the deputy to become involved, Lott said.

One video clip shows Fields approaching the student and holding onto her, trying to yank her out of her chair and then putting her in a hold as the chair falls over. He then throws the student across the classroom floor and says, “put your hands behind your back.”

Richland Two School District is “deeply concerned” about the incident, district superintendent Debbie Hamm said in a statement Monday. “The District will not tolerate any actions that jeopardize the safety of our students,” she said.

The officer involved has been banned from school district property, a “permanent request,” the district’s Board of Trustees Chairman James Manning said at a separate Tuesday news conference.

“Yesterday’s incident was an outrageous exception” to the school district’s culture, Manning said. School district officials pledged to review the screening and training of school resource officers.

[ACLU files suit against sheriff who allegedly handcuffed disabled children at school]

WIS-TV also posted a longer version of the video that appears to have been taken from a different angle.

The one-and-a-half minute clip shows an officer asking a student seated at a desk to “just stand up” and ends with the student being thrown across the classroom.

“Are you going to come with me or am I going to make you? Come on,” the officer says. “I’m going to get you up.”

Fields won a 2007 civil suit brought against him alleging that he used excessive force when investigating a noise complaint.

A student filed another lawsuit against Fields, scheduled for trial in January. The student was expelled after being accused of belonging to a gang, and alleges Fields “unfairly and recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity.”

[Schools taking serious look at putting armed police in schools]

News of the federal inquiry into the Spring Valley High incident was welcomed by the Richland Two Black Parents Association.

“The unfortunate actions of this police officer has revealed what many African American parents have experienced in this district for a very long time,” reads a statement. “This is just another example of why we must have an independent assessment from various parties including the Department of Justice to examine policies and practices in the District.”

National organizations have called attention to the video as an example of police over-reach in schools.

“Instead of deescalating the situation, Deputy Ben Fields dehumanized and criminalized a black teenage girl,” said Judith Browne, co-director of Advancement Project, a civil rights group. “Current police culture has no place in our schools.”

The American Civil Liberties Union also condemned the actions depicted in the videos.

“There is no justification whatsoever for treating a child like this,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “Regardless of the reason for the officer’s actions, such egregious use of force — against young people who are sitting in their classrooms — is outrageous. School should be a place to learn and grow, not a place to be brutalized. We must take action to address the criminalization of children in South Carolina, especially at school.”

[This story, originally published Oct. 26, has been updated.]