Deputy who threw South Carolina student in class is under federal investigation
Federal and state officials opened a civil rights investigation Tuesday over the manhandling of a black high school student in South Carolina who was yanked from her desk and dragged across the classroom floor by a white sheriff’s deputy.
The FBI, the Justice Department and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division announced they will decide whether criminal charges would be pressed against the deputy, whose actions were caught on cellphone video.
Also, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said he will decide as soon as Wednesday whether the deputy, who is on unpaid leave, will be allowed to stay with the department.
At an afternoon news conference, Lott called the video of the Monday confrontation between Senior Deputy Ben Fields and the student “disturbing,” but said he did not think race played a role.
Earlier, state NAACP President Lonnie Randolph condemned the incident, saying that he did not know of any white student who had been treated with the same aggression by authorities.
The incident roiled the nation as two videos of the event went viral. On Tuesday, educators, activists and some politicians condemned the confrontation, which raised questions about the disciplinary role of police officers in schools.
School officials in Columbia said they will reexamine their policies and training.
“I think sometimes our officers are put in uncomfortable positions when a teacher can’t control a student,” said Lott, adding that his office will also look at when it is proper to call in a resource officer.
“That is something for the district to answer,” Lott said. “Is it proper to call in a resources officer to discipline a student or is that the job of the school?”
Lott said police have a third video showing the girl punching Fields.
The girl, who was not identified, was charged under the state’s disturbing schools law, a misdemeanor that allows police to arrest a student for disrupting class or school functions. She was released to her parents.
“If a student disturbs school, they can be arrested,” Lott said. “We don’t need to arrest these students; we need to keep them in school.”
Three students who were in the classroom said that the teacher tried to discipline the girl and that when she refused to leave the classroom, the teacher called in an administrator.
The girl refused the administrator’s requests for her to leave the room, leading the administrator to call in Fields.
In one video, the deputy can be seen telling the student sitting at her desk, “You either come with me, or I’m going to make you.”
In a second video posted on Instagram, the student can be seen lifting her arm defensively as the deputy physically tries to remove her from her desk.
The deputy then wraps his arm around her neck from behind in a headlock and tries to lift the student by one of her legs. As the deputy struggles with the student, the desk flips backward onto the ground with the student still sitting in it, the video shows.
The desk then crashes into another desk and nearly hits another student, who appears to be shocked at what she is witnessing.
The deputy drags the student, who is still entangled in the desk, and then throws her across the classroom, the two videos show.
Debbie Hamm, Richland School District Two superintendent, said in a statement that she was “deeply disturbed” by the video.
James Manning, chairman of the school district’s board of trustees, said in a statement: “The amount of force used on a female student by a male officer appears to me to be excessive and unnecessary. As the parent of a daughter in Richland School District Two, I can assure you that we are taking this matter very seriously.”
Another student not shown on video, Niya Kenny, 18, said she was also charged with disturbing the school.
Kenny told WLTX-TV said she was arrested after objecting to her classmate’s treatment by the deputy.
“I know this girl don’t got nobody and I couldn’t believe this was happening,” Kenny said. “I had never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl.”
Kenny added: “I was screaming, ‘What the [hell], what the [hell], is this really happening?’ I was praying out loud for the girl. I just couldn’t believe this was happening. I was just crying and he said, ‘Since you have so much to say, you are coming too.’ I just put my hands behind my back.”
The student who shot the Instagram video wrote in a caption that the officer was first called because the girl had been asked to put her cellphone away and then refused to leave the classroom. (No phone is visible in either video clip.)
“When [the officer] arrives he asked her to get up 4 or 5 times she tells him No,” the student wrote in a caption on Instagram. “He then moves the objects around him and while standing over her he asked one more time then tryed to pick her up but she started fight him. Then he used force to get hands behind her back.”
Tony Robinson Jr., a student who shot a video from the classroom, said the girl apparently had her phone out while the class was doing a computer assignment.
“She said she took her phone out, but it was only for a quick second,” Robinson told CBS News, describing her as “apologetic.”
When the administrator called in the deputy, the deputy first asked another student in the classroom to move a desk out of the way, Robinson said.
“To me that was a sign of, he could already tell what he was about to do,” Robinson said.
The student also told the deputy that she had not done anything wrong, said Robinson, who added of the ensuing struggle: “I’ve never seen anything so nasty looking, so sick to the point that, you know, other students are turning away, don’t know what to do, and are just scared for their lives.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina said in a statement that the organization “will not stand idly by and allow this to continue.”
“This type of brutal treatment is completely unjustified, irrespective of the student’s actions leading to the involvement of the [school resource officer],” the ACLU chapter wrote.
This article will be updated.
Follow @MattDPearce on Twitter for national news.
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