Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott was clear about why he fired a sheriff’s deputy Wednesday for flinging a student across a high school classroom after she refused multiple orders to leave class for using her cellphone.
“Ben Fields did wrong this past Monday,” Lott said at a news conference.
But the sheriff wasn’t done spreading the blame. He said of the defiant student: “She started this.”
Fields’ firing is not the end of a rolling debate over who bears the brunt of the blame for the encounter, which also has brought into question ongoing concerns about the role of police in schools.
Students at Spring Valley High School had filmed Senior Deputy Fields putting their classmate in a headlock, flipping her desk over, and tossing her across the floor.
Todd Rutherford, an attorney for the still-unidentified student, told “Good Morning America” on Wednesday that she had neck and back injuries, a cast on her arm and a rug burn on her forehead because of Fields’ aggressive treatment.
As the FBI begins a civil rights investigation into whether Fields broke any laws, the deputy denied wrongdoing in a statement from his attorney.
“We believe that Mr. Fields’ actions were carried out professionally and that he was performing his job duties within the legal threshold,” wrote his attorney, Scott J. Hayes.
Among parents and students at the school, reviews were mixed. The deputy is white and the student is black, and outside the modern brick campus, some black and white parents who lined up in sedans and SUVs to pick their children up were unsure about whether the incident reflected a broader problem of race.
Waiting in a black Chevrolet Malibu, Deborah Johnson, 47, an African American registered nurse whose daughter is in 10th grade, said she knew Fields as a friend and did not think he was racist. When her daughter ran track, she remembered, he ran up to her and hugged her.
“Ben was the type of fellow who likes to assist people,” she said. “He was good to my kids. I don’t think this has anything to do with race. The minute something happens between whites and blacks, people are too quick to pull the race card.”
Still, she added, “He had to be punished. What he did was uncalled for. But the student also should have listened.”
After football practice on Wednesday evening, Devin Smalls, 17, an African American senior on the defensive line, said Fields coached him for four years on the football team and was fair.
“He don’t target black people,” Smalls said. “He was intense, but he was a football coach. It was wrong for the sheriff to fire him. He was doing his job. None of this would have happened if she had just got up.”
However, Brandon Jackson, 16, an African American on the student council, said two years ago he saw Fields slam a male student into the cafeteria floor.
“He was very forceful, and that was unnecessary,” he said of that past incident. “I didn’t think that much force should be used — particularly not by such a large, muscular man. You can’t go around treating people’s children like that.”
Still, Jackson agreed that the student on Monday bore some responsibility. “If she hadn’t caused the classroom disruption, this might not have happened,” he said.
One of the girl’s classmates, Niya Kenny, 18, said she was speechless at first, then yelled at classmates, “Record! Record!”
“I didn’t really even know her name. ... She didn’t do anything at all to deserve it,” Kenny said in a telephone interview.
Fields handcuffed Kenny too. “I’m literally standing there with tears in my eyes. I already knew he was about to handcuff me,” she said. Kenny and the unidentified girl face a misdemeanor charge of disturbing schools.
Lott, the sheriff, has said that deputies in schools receive higher levels of training and that Fields was up-to-date on his requirements.
But there have been multiple allegations of wrongdoing in the past against Fields.
Lott said a number of complaints had been filed against him over the years and that “a number of them have been sustained” and many had not. He did not give further details and did not release Fields’ personnel file Wednesday.
Fields had been sued at least three times in the last 10 years, with all three lawsuits accusing him of acting aggressively or wrongly implicating innocent people.
The first lawsuit stemmed from a 2006 incident in which a woman had called 911 to report possible abuse of her granddaughter. The woman’s attorney, Brian Gambrell, said the deputies who responded instead handcuffed her, threw her to the ground and arrested her for interfering with their investigation. The criminal charge against her was dropped. The judge threw out her lawsuit, ruling the deputies’ arrest was reasonable.
In a second lawsuit filed in 2010, a black couple sued Fields and another deputy, alleging they had used excessive force during a 2005 noise complaint and arrest in Columbia. The criminal charges against the couple were also dropped, according to attorney Chris Mills.
A jury sided with the law enforcement officers and ruled against the couple when they sued seeking damages.
A third lawsuit, filed by a former student in 2013, accused Fields of wrongly identifying the student as a gang member, leading to the student’s expulsion.
The student, Ashton James Reese, said Fields “unfairly and recklessly targets African American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity.”
Fields denied those claims in a court filing. The case is set to go to trial in January.
Jarvie reported from Columbia and Pearce from Los Angeles.