The South Carolina student thrown from her seat by a school police officer had obeyed orders to put her cellphone away, and the dispute arose because she did not put it away fast enough, her attorney said Thursday.
“She could have been left alone,” said Todd Rutherford, the attorney for the 16-year-old girl whom he identified by her first name, Shakara. “She wasn’t yelling. She wasn’t disrupting the class. She wasn’t a threat to anyone.”
The disciplinary episode began when the student used her phone during math class. It escalated when she did not comply with instructions from her teacher and a vice principal to leave the classroom. Senior Deputy Ben Fields, a school resource officer, was then called in to deal with her.
When Shakara did not follow Field’s instructions to leave, he wrapped his arm around her neck and tried to pull her from her desk, which flipped backward to the floor. He dragged her out of the desk, threw her across the floor and arrested her for disturbing the classroom.
Shakara now has a hard cast on her right arm, a swollen neck, back and shoulder, as well as carpet burn on her forehead, Rutherford said.
“She’s bruised and battered and hurt — physically and emotionally,” he said, “what you would expect after being tossed across the room like a rag doll.
“My thought is that you don’t treat a dog that way,” he added. “We don’t treat animals like that, let alone children. What happened was wrong, what you might expect to happen in a Third World country.”
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott fired the deputy Wednesday for using inappropriate force and said the maneuver violated department policy and training. He also said the student was partly to blame because “she started this” and was disrespectful and disruptive in class.
Rutherford criticized Lott for blaming the student and said his actions “defied common sense.”
“You don’t go to math class to be treated that way by someone who’s supposed to protect you,” he said.
In an interview Wednesday evening, Shakara’s classmate Niya Kenny said that the incident left her momentarily speechless — until she shouted, “Record! Record!” to the class.
Kenny said she was just standing up for her Spring Valley High School classmate, whom she barely knew.
“I didn’t really even know her name,” Kenny, 18, said in a telephone interview monitored by her attorney. “She was a quiet girl. But just the fact that she was being thrown like that … I would have stood up like that for a boy or a girl. She didn’t do anything at all to deserve it.”
Kenny said her classmate had her cellphone in math class. “She just had it out. She wasn’t talking or anything.”
As the altercation unfolded, Kenny said at first she was speechless. “Then I’m like, ‘Oh, my God. Is this really happening?’ I was crying and screaming. ‘This is crazy. Is this really happening? Is nobody going to help her?’ Then I started telling people, ‘Record! Record!’ ”
Fields took Shakara out of the classroom. Then, Kenny said, he returned for her.
“Do you want some too?” she said he asked. “I’m like, ‘No, no,’ ” she said. “I’m literally standing there with tears in my eyes. I already knew he was about to handcuff me.”
Kenny spent 8 1/2 hours in a detention center Monday. When she met up with Shakara at their attorneys’ office on Tuesday, she said, her classmate was quiet and gave short, monosyllabic answers.
“She’s shaken up. She’s traumatized,” Kenny said.
“I feel like a teenager is going to be a teenager, and a teenager is going to think like a teenager,” she said. “Maybe she could have gotten up, but of course she didn’t deserve what she got. Justice has to prevail.”
Kenny said she had never had any trouble with Fields before, but she was aware that some students referred to him as “Officer Slam.” The FBI is investigating whether he violated the girls’ civil rights.
Fields’ attorney denied the deputy had done anything wrong. “We believe that Mr. Fields’ actions were carried out professionally and that he was performing his job duties within the legal threshold,” his attorney, Scott J. Hayes, said in a statement.
Kenny welcomed Sheriff Lott’s decision to fire Fields, but took issue with Lott’s allegation that the girl was to blame.