COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation Tuesday after a deputy flipped a student backward in her desk and tossed her across the floor for refusing to leave her math class.
Federal help was sought by Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who called what happened at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, “very disturbing” and placed Senior Deputy Ben Fields on leave.
The sheriff said the girl wasn’t injured, but the confrontation prompted outrage after it was recorded and shared online. One student said it started when the girl refused to hand over her cellphone during class.
During the moments posted online, Fields warns the girl to stand up or be forcibly removed. The officer then wraps a forearm around her neck, flips her and the desk backward onto the floor, and tosses her toward the front of the classroom, where he handcuffs her.
Lott said the video also shows the girl tried to strike the officer as she’s being flipped onto her back, but he’s focused on what his deputy did as he tries to decide whether he should remain on the force.
“I think sometimes our officers are put in uncomfortable positions when a teacher can’t control a student,” the sheriff said.
A second student was arrested for verbally objecting to the girl’s treatment. Both girls were charged with disturbing schools and released to their parents. Their names were not officially released.
The second student, Niya Kenny, told WLTX-TV that she felt she had to say something. Doris Kenny said she’s proud her daughter was “brave enough to speak out against what was going on.”
Lt. Curtis Wilson confirmed that Fields is white and the students involved are black, but told The Associated Press in an email to “keep in mind this is not a race issue.”
“Race is indeed a factor,” countered South Carolina’s NAACP president, Lonnie Randolph Jr.
“To be thrown out of her seat as she was thrown, and dumped on the floor … I don’t ever recall a female student who is not of color (being treated this way). It doesn’t affect white students,” Randolph said.
Tony Robinson Jr., who recorded the final moments, said it all began when the teacher asked the girl to hand over her phone during class. She refused, so he called an administrator, who summoned the officer.
“The administrator tried to get her to move and pleaded with her to get out of her seat,” Robinson told WLTX. “She said she really hadn’t done anything wrong. She said she took her phone out, but it was only for a quick second, you know, please, she was begging, apologetic.”
“Next, the administrator called Deputy Fields in … he asked, ‘will you move,’ and she said ‘no, I haven’t done anything wrong,’ Robinson said.
“When I saw what was going to happen, my immediate first thing to think was, let me get this on camera. This was going to be something … that everyone else needs to see, something that we can’t just let this pass by.”
Districts across the county put officers in schools after two teenagers massacred fellow students at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. Schools now routinely summon police to discipline students, experts say.
“Kids are not criminals, by the way. When they won’t get up, when they won’t put up the phone, they’re silly, disobedient kids — not criminals,” said John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization.
Police should guard doors to “stop the crazies from getting in these schools,” Whitehead said, but “when you have police in the schools, you’re going to run into this — having police do what teachers and parents should do.”
The National Association of School Resource Officers recommends that schools and police agree to prohibit officers “from becoming involved in formal school discipline situations that are the responsibility of school administrators.”
The Rev. Jesse Jackson called the video a “national disgrace.”
“This man should be arrested, charged, fired and sued,” Jackson said on his way to Columbia. “The department should be sued.”
Mayor Steve Benjamin also called for an independent investigation. School Superintendent Debbie Hamm said “the district will not tolerate any actions that jeopardize the safety of our students.” School Board Chairman Jim Manning called the deputy’s actions “shamefully shocking.”
It was an “egregious use of force,” ACLU of South Carolina Executive Director Victoria Middleton said.
Fields has prevailed against accusations of excessive force and racial bias before.
Trial is set for January in the case of an expelled student who claims Fields targeted blacks and falsely accused him of being a gang member in 2013. In another case, a federal jury sided with Fields after a black couple accused him of excessive force and battery during a noise complaint arrest in 2005. A third lawsuit, dismissed in 2009, involved a woman who accused him of battery and violating her rights during a 2006 arrest.