COLUMBIA, S.C. » The Justice Department said today it is investigating whether a deputy’s arrest of a student who refused to leave her high school math class violated federal civil rights laws. In recorded images posted on social media, the deputy can be seen flipping the girl backward in her desk and tossing her across the classroom floor.
Federal help was sought by Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who placed Senior Deputy Ben Fields on leave after the confrontation at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina.
"It’s very disturbing what happened today. It’s something I have to deal with and that’s what we’re going to be doing," Lott said by telephone Monday.
The sheriff’s department said no one was hurt during the confrontation, which was captured on cellphones by several students and posted online. One student said it all started when the girl pulled out her cellphone and refused her math teacher’s request to hand it over during class.
During the moments captured on video, Fields can be seen standing over the girl, asking her to stand up. The girl remains seated and the officer wraps a forearm around her neck. The desk then flips and the girl is slammed backward onto the floor, where the officer tosses her toward the front of the classroom and handcuffs her.
A second student who verbally objected to the girl’s treatment also was arrested.
Both girls were charged with disturbing schools and released to their parents. Their names were not released, but the second student, Niya Kenny, told WLTX-TV that Deputy Fields’ use of force shocked her. Her mother, 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 are black, but told The Associated Press in an email to "keep in mind this is not a race issue."
The district’s Black Parents Association denied this, saying the video "revealed what many African-American parents have experienced in this district for a very long time."
Tony Robinson Jr., who recorded the final moments of the confrontation, told WLTX that it began when the teacher tried to confiscate a phone the girl took out during class. She refused, so he called an administrator, he said.
"The administrator tried to get her to move and pleaded with her to get out of her seat. She still denied it. You know, 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 on what happened and everything," Robinson said.
"Next, the administrator called Deputy Fields in … he asked, ‘will you move,’ and she said ‘no, I haven’t done anything wrong,’ Robinson said.
"And that is where it started, right there," the student 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. That was wrong, and there’s no justifiable reason for him as to why he did that to that girl."
Deputies said the sheriff wrote to U.S. Attorney Bill Nettles and the FBI requesting a federal investigation. The Rev. Jesse Jackson also called for a federal probe and said he would visit Columbia today to get more information; the NAACP planned an afternoon news conference to express community outrage. Jackson called the video a "national disgrace" that fits a pattern of unfair behavior against blacks.
"This man should be arrested, charged, fired and sued," Jackson said. "The department should be sued."
Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin said, "We need an independent investigation to get to the bottom of this incident and see that justice is done."
Richland 2 Superintendent Debbie Hamm said, "Our district is deeply concerned."
"Student safety is and always will be the district’s top priority," Hamm said. "The district will not tolerate any actions that jeopardize the safety of our students."
Richland District 2 School Board Chairman Jim Manning also issued a statement, saying, "I have watched the video several times and there is no doubt that the video is extremely disturbing. The amount of force used on a female student by a male officer appears to me to be excessive and unnecessary."
The images captured an "egregious use of force" against the student, ACLU of South Carolina Executive Director Victoria Middleton said.
Fields has been accused of excessive force and racial bias before, but has prevailed in court so far.
Trial is set for January in the case of an expelled student who claims Fields targeted black students 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.