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S.C. sheriff fires officer who threw student across a 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)

A South Carolina police officer was fired Wednesday after videos emerged showing him yanking a high school student out of her chair and throwing her across a classroom earlier in the week.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said that deputy Ben Fields, who is white, was fired from the department for using excessive force during the arrest of a black female student in a math class at Spring Valley High School.

The incident was captured on multiple cell phone videos and showed the officer asking the student to stand up before he grabbed the young woman and tossed her out of her chair. The deputy’s dismissal comes after the Justice Department’s office of civil rights, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Columbia, S.C., announced they were investigating the case involving Fields, a school resource officer at the high school.

[FBI, Justice Department investigating S.C. school resource officer]

Fields had been suspended without pay and banned from school district properties in the wake of the incident.

The videos recorded inside of Richland County’s Spring Valley High spread around the world on social media this week, prompting a federal civil rights inquiry and sparking outrage amid America’s ongoing debate on how law enforcement interacts with the communities they police.

Lott said that Fields had been posted at the high school for seven years and had served as an assistant football coach. Lott said that the classroom teacher and an administrator present during the incident said they appreciated Fields’ quick response — the student allegedly was disturbing the class — but the sheriff noted that Fields used improper force during the arrest.

“What she does is not what I’m looking at; what I’m looking at is what our student resource officer did,” Lott said.

“He was wrong in his actions and it was not what I expect of my deputies,” Lott said. “Deputy Fields did not follow proper training or procedures when he threw the student across the room. It continues to upset me that he picked the student up and threw her.”

[This is where your child is most likely to get suspended from school]

Lott said that the student is still facing charges for disrupting the class, a commotion that prevented other students from learning and the teacher from performing his job. Under South Carolina law, it is a misdemeanor offense to “willfully or unnecessarily … interfere with or to disturb in any way” students and teachers in school, or “to act in an obnoxious manner” in a school. Those charged with disturbing schools face a maximum penalty of a $1,000 fine or 90 days in a county jail.

Family courts handle such cases if the accused is a minor. Disturbing schools is the third-most common charge in cases referred to the state’s Department of Juvenile Justice, just behind assault and battery and shoplifting, according to 2014 department data.

“She is responsible for initiating this action,” Lott said. “Some responsibility falls on her. The action of our deputy, we take responsibility for that. What she did doesn’t justify what our deputy did. But she needs to be held responsible for what she did.”

Lott said that he fired Fields in person and spoke to him about the incident. He said that Fields expressed remorse.

“He’s sorry that this whole thing occurred, it was not his intention,” Lott said. “He tried to do his job and that’s what he feels like he did. It happened very quickly and his actions was something that if he probably had to do over again he’d do it differently.”

Fields had been suspended without pay. He also has been banned from school property, according to officials with the Richland Two School District.

An attorney representing Fields defended the now-former deputy’s actions as “justified and lawful,” WIS-TV reported.

“We believe that Mr. Fields’ actions were carried out professionally and that he was performing his job duties within the legal threshold,” attorney Scott Hayes said in the statement released Wednesday.

Hayes added Fields “welcomes the opportunity” to address the incident, but he won’t be commenting publicly as the federal investigation continues.

A lawyer representing the student has not returned requests for comment.

The sheriff’s statement Wednesday triggered a fresh wave of outrage from many people who said students should never face such treatment from police in school.

“This was a situation in which the school should have never called the police officer into the room. And the actions of that young lady, from we’ve seen in the video, did not rise to the level of an arrest,” said Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the Advancement Project, a national nonprofit that advocates for reforming school discipline policies.

“There are far more appropriate ways to hold students accountable than arresting them,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of ACLU of South Carolina. “We’re over-policing our students rather than using alternative, proven discipline measures that would have far better outcomes all around.”

School officials said they are working with the sheriff’s office to improve coordination between educators and officers.

“We know important work is ahead of us as we thoughtfully and carefully review the decision-making process that may lead to a school resource officer taking the lead in handling a student disruption,” Schools Superintendent Debbie Hamm said in a statement. “Our primary goal is to de-escalate situations through problem-solving and communication techniques, while avoiding actions that escalate and result in unfortunate confrontations.”

[“Opinion: What happened in South Carolina is a daily risk for black children]

Richland Two is a district of 26,000 students that — like many school districts nationwide — disproportionately suspends and expels black students.

Black students accounted for 59 percent of the overall student population but 78 percent of suspensions in the 2011-2012 school year, according to federal civil rights data. Black students accounted for 71 percent of the district’s 90 expulsions.

White students in the school district made up 29 percent of the population and accounted for 13 percent of the suspensions.

James Manning, the school board chairman, called the video that circulated this week “shamefully shocking,” according to the Associated Press. But he and other district officials declined to answer questions about when officers should use force with students, saying that is up to the sheriff’s office, the AP reported.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan declined to comment, citing the FBI investigation. Duncan has pushed schools to do away with harsh zero-tolerance discipline policies, saying they disproportionately push minority students into the criminal justice system.

[Opinion: Take cops out of schools]

A regularly scheduled school board meeting Tuesday night became an opportunity for community members to weigh in on the incident. More than a dozen parents testified, offering mixed interpretations: Some said that the officer’s actions were racially motivated, while others said that the student bears responsibility for failing to comply with directions.

The State newspaper reported:

“This is not a race issue. This is ‘I want to be defiant and not do what I’m told,’” said Rebekah Woodford, a parent of two Spring Valley graduates and a current Spring Valley student. “That child chose the course of action at hand.”
Kyle Lacio argued otherwise.
“If anybody thinks that a white female would have been treated the same way, then I think you live in a different world than me,” Lacio said.

A lawyer representing the student told ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Wednesday morning that she was injured as a result of the officer’s actions.

“She now has a cast on her arm, she has neck and back injuries. She has a Band-Aid on her forehead where she suffered rug burn on her forehead,” Todd Rutherford told the network, according to the AP.

Lott had previously said that the girl was uninjured in the confrontation. He also said that he did not believe that race was a factor in the officer’s actions.