The FBI and the U.S. Justice Department will investigate an altercation Monday between a school resource officer and a female student at Spring Valley High School that was caught on video and posted online.
“The Columbia FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances surrounding the arrest of a student at Spring Valley High School,” a Department of Justice spokesperson wrote in an email.
Snippets of three videos shot by students in the classroom were played and replayed Tuesday on national television throughout the day to shocked reactions.
The incident has to be addressed with speed, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said in explaining why he so quickly invited in federal investigators.
Lott on Monday asked Dave Thomas, special agent in charge for the FBI for South Carolina, and William Nettles, the U.S. attorney for South Carolina with the Justice Department, to investigate.
“I hope the community will remain calm so that we can conduct a thorough and thoughtful investigation,” Nettles told The State newspaper Tuesday. “At the conclusion of that investigation, we’ll be happy to discuss our findings with the community.”
“The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence in order to determine whether a federal law was violated. As this is an ongoing investigation, per Department of Justice policy we are unable to comment further at this time.”
The video went viral Monday. It shows Senior Deputy Ben Fields approach the female student seated in a desk. The resource officer places his left hand on the female student’s left arm, before putting his right arm around her neck.
Fields then flips the desk over, with the student still seated, before spinning it around and forcibly removing the student, then sliding her across the floor and trying to restrain her at the front of the classroom.
Fields is white; the student is African-American.
That teen and another female student were arrested for disturbing the peace, Sheriff’s Department spokesman Lt. Curtis Wilson said Tuesday.
Lott said Tuesday that Fields is on unpaid leave.
Richland 2 superintendent Debbie Hamm called the video “outrageous” and “heinous” during a Tuesday afternoon news conference. Richland 2 board chairman James Manning said the district does not want Fields in any Richland 2 school again. They would not discuss details of the incident.
Manning described what he saw in the videos circulated from the classroom as “shamefully shocking ... reprehensible, unforgivable and inconsistent with everything that this district stands for, what we work for and what we aspire to be.”
“There is absolutely no place in this district or any other district, for that matter, for what happened here,” Manning said.
EXAMINING WHAT HAPPENED
Lott said he “wanted to throw up” when he saw the video of his deputy. “But I have to look at the total picture. ... But, yes, I’m human. I’m a parent.”
Lott said his internal investigation will determine, likely within 24 hours, whether the officer followed procedure and whether he should continue working as a deputy.
The investigation being done by the FBI and the Justice Department is a criminal one, Lott said.
The girl was paying attention to her cell phone instead of participating in class, Lott said. She was asked to leave the classroom by a teacher and then an assistant principal before the deputy was called in, Lott said.
Lott said three students shot video. Each shows the incident a little differently, he said. The one that appeared on social media last shows the student hitting the officer with her fists before the desk is tipped over.
“She bears some responsibility in this,” Lott said of the student when asked about her role. “She disrupted class. But we’re not looking at what she did ... and we want students held accountable – not crucified.”
The student-shot videos are something that “helps us tremendously,” he said. But a video “is a snapshot, not a total picture.”
Fields has been with the Sheriff’s Department since 2004, the department said. He joined the school resource officer program in 2008, and in 2014 he received the Richland School District 2 Culture of Excellence Award. He is a school resource officer for nearby Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary School as well as Spring Valley. He also served as defensive line coordinator for the Spring Valley football team.
Fields is a son of Wayne Fields, president and chief executive of Columbia’s Oliver Gospel Mission, Lott said. Oliver Gospel has served some of Columbia’s homeless population for more than 100 years.
Fields has had three lawsuits filed against him as a deputy. In one, involving an excessive-force allegation before Fields worked in schools, a federal jury found in his favor. Another case was dismissed, the Associated Press reported. The third suit, which is ongoing, alleges Fields wrongly pushed for a Richland 2 student’s expulsion.
When asked, Lott said he might make some changes in how school resource officers operate. “I have some concerns,” he said. “That’s something the school district is going to have to think about.”
The Richland Sheriff’s Department has 87 school resource officers, the largest number in the state, Lott said. There have been SROs, as the deputies are called, since Lott was first elected sheriff 19 years ago.
That predates the 1999 massacre at Colorado’s Columbine High School, which many see as the moment when SROs became almost mandatory in schools nationwide, especially high schools.
Drugs, gangs and, since Columbine, the fear of an angry teen with a gun has helped get school resource officers caught up in disciplinary as much as criminal behavior, youth advocates say. The fear of doing nothing is tremendous. The public expects action.
Officers’ hands are often tied by laws and policies that force them to act, said International Association of Chiefs of Police President Richard Beary during a public forum in January for the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.
For example, Lott said the state charge of “disturbing schools” can be and is widely applied when students should not be charged criminally. “I didn’t write that law,” he said.
Hamm said school leaders typically separate disciplinary issues from criminal issues when it comes to response protocol. “We do have separate protocols for disciplinary incidents and criminal behavior. School resource officers are typically involved in the latter,” Hamm said. “Something did not go right in this classroom.”
DID RACE PLAY A ROLE?
Asked if he thought race played a role in Fields’ actions, Lott said, “I would hope that race played no part in this. I wouldn’t care if she’s purple. ... I don’t care what she did. I’m looking at the deputy’s actions.”
Spring Valley’s second school resources officer, who is black, came into the classroom at the end of the incident, Lott said, and helped handcuff the student and walk her to the office.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund on Tuesday called the video “shocking.”
There have been racial tensions between black parents and the Richland 2 administration, with the parents citing concerns about the discipline of black students.
The Black Parents Association formed a year ago and now has more than 5,000 members. It was active in last year’s elections, which saw a black majority elected to the seven-member Richland 2 board for the first time.
The area’s demographics have changed dramatically in the past 10 years. Richland 2 has evolved from a predominantly white suburban district to a district that is now majority-minority. Richland 2’s student population is 59 percent black and 26 percent white, according to the district’s most recent numbers. The district is the Columbia area’s largest, with more than 27,000 students.
“I’m comfortable with saying that race is a factor,” said Columbia’s Lonnie Randolph, the NAACP’s state director. “Race is indeed a factor. ... We do have a problem in South Carolina. We do have a problem in America.”
However, Helen Grant, the district’s recently hired chief diversity and multicultural inclusion officer, said she is not so certain that race was a factor in Monday’s incident. “I believe that is what makes it an incident of different races, not that it was a racially motivated incident,” Grant said. “I don’t know that to be the case. And we work here in Richland 2 to use race as strength. Diversity is our strength.”
According to the Center for Public Integrity, South Carolina’s rate of student “referrals to law enforcement” is below the national average. The state’s rate is 5 per 1,000, compared to about 6 per 1,000 nationally. But the state’s numbers for 2011-12 did show a pattern of disproportionate referrals of black students.
Black students make up almost 36 percent of the state’s public school students, but they were 50 percent of all students referred to law enforcement.
Spring Valley High School reported no arrests or referrals that year.