On Tuesday the Justice Department opened an investigation into whether a deputy who arrested a student for refusing to leave her math class violated the girl’s civil rights by flipping her backward in her desk and tossing her across the classroom floor. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott sought federal help on the matter while calling what happened at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, “very disturbing” and placed Senior Deputy Ben Fields on leave.
According to the sheriff’s department no one was hurt, but the confrontation resulted in outrage after several students recorded part of it and shared the video. One student who was in the classroom said it started when the girl pulled out her cellphone and refused her math teacher’s request to hand it over during class.
In the video that spreading throughout the internet Fields can be seen standing over the girl, telling her to stand up or be forcibly removed. When she refuses, the officer wraps a forearm around her neck, flips her and the desk backward onto the floor, and then tosses her toward the front of the classroom, where he handcuffs her.
A second student who verbally objected to the girl’s treatment was also arrested. Both girls, whose names were not released were charged with disturbing schools and released to their parents.
However the second student, Niya Kenny, told WLTX-TV that she was shocked by the use of force and 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 indeed black, but he told The Associated Press in an email to “keep in mind this is not a race issue.” However the district’s Black Parents Association feels differently, saying the video “revealed what many African-American parents have experienced in this district for a very long time.”
Districts across the county began placing officers in schools after the Columbine High School incident in 1999 when two teenagers massacred their fellow students. Experts say lines have blurred since then, as administrators summon in-house police officers to implement routine discipline.
John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization said police are “trained to fight criminals. 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.”
As for Officer Fields history, a 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. As well as 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 involving the same officer was dismissed in 2009, involving a woman who accused him of battery and violating her rights during a 2006 arrest.
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