'Disturbing' arrest of black student sparks US probes
The cop flipped a black girl out of her chair & dragged her for refusing to put away her cellphone.
SOUTH CAROLINA - A white deputy who slammed a black South Carolina high school student to the ground during a classroom arrest became the focus of a federal probe on Tuesday, as civil rights groups called for him to be fired and charged with assault.
Officer Ben Fields, 34, was suspended without pay after videos filmed by students showed him flipping an 18-year-old girl out of her chair and dragging her across a classroom for refusing a teacher's demand to put away her cellphone.
The arrest at Spring Valley High School in Columbia on Monday drew swift condemnation on social media after the footage went viral and raised concerns over whether the use of police in schools can criminalize behavior once handled by educators.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department launched a civil rights probe to determine if federal laws were broken, as the president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for Fields to be charged with assault.
The incident comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of use of force by police, particularly against minorities. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said he did not know if race was a factor in the case.
The student, who was not identified, was not injured, he said. A third video that emerged on Tuesday showed her striking Fields after he put her in a head lock, Lott said.
The student "bears some responsibility. It started with her," Lott said.
However, the sheriff described the arrest footage as disturbing and said the internal police investigation should conclude within the next day because "the facts pretty much speak for themselves."
A hashtag #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh trended nationwide within hours of the student's arrest, which also garnered attention on Tuesday from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
"There is no excuse for violence inside a school," Clinton tweeted. "The #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh is unacceptable -schools should be safe places."
OFFICER NAMED IN PREVIOUS LAWSUITS
Fields, who did not reply to an email request for comment, joined the sheriff's office in 2004 and its school resource officer program in 2008, according to an agency newsletter. Last November, an elementary school where he also is assigned presented him with a "Culture of Excellence Award."
Fields "has proven to be an exceptional role model to the students he serves and protects," the newsletter said.
He also was one of the coaches for the high school football team.
Court records show Fields has been named as a defendant in two federal lawsuits, most recently in 2013 in a case that claims he "unfairly and recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity." A jury trial is set for Jan. 27 in Columbia.
In a 2007 case, a jury decided in favor of Fields and another deputy accused by a Columbia couple of unreasonable and excessive force during an investigation of a noise complaint.
HISTORY OF RACIAL TENSION IN SCHOOL DISTRICT
Fields was called to a classroom on Monday to remove a student who refused a teacher's commands to hand over her cell phone.
One of the pupils who videotaped the arrest told local news station WLTX that things quickly turned physical when the student also refused Fields' request to move from her seat.
A video shows Fields approaching the sitting girl, wrapping his arm under her chin and flipping her desk with her in it.
Fields then drags her from the chair and tosses her on the floor, as students look on, before handcuffing her.
"It was definitely a scary experience," the student witness, Tony Robinson Jr., told WLTX.
The girl, who did not appear to resist or argue in earlier videos, was arrested for "disturbing school" and released to her family, sheriff's Lieutenant Curtis Wilson said.
A founding member of the Richland Two Black Parents Association said the group was saddened but not surprised by the encounter in a school district that in the past two decades has transformed from being predominantly white to majority black.
The parents association, which has 5,700 members after being formed a year ago, has called for a Justice Department probe into what it says are long-standing discriminatory practices by the school district, said Stephen Gilchrist, who has one son who graduated from Spring Valley High and another attending now.
Gilchrist said the district has a legacy of expelling and suspending large numbers of African-American students, who make up nearly 59 percent of the district's 27,500 pupils.
A school official said the district has made strides toward improving racial disparities that trouble schools nationwide.
"We don't want this to be about just this officer," Gilchrist said. "There is much more going on that has helped create a culture of discrimination within this district."