Video of S.C. cop tossing student renews debate on race, excessive force

A South Carolina school resource officer was captured on video grabbing, pushing, and then dragging a girl across a high school classroom. 

In cell phone videos captured during a math class in a South Carolina high school, a school resource officer confronts a girl sitting in her desk. But in a violent turn of events, it wasn’t a typical act of discipline.

When the student refused to leave the classroom after her teacher and then a school administrator asked her to, according to another student, a school resource officer was summoned. He is the one in the video, seen grabbing the student, and then wrapping his forearm around her neck. Knocking her backwards and dragging her across the floor, he finally says, “Put your hands behind your back, give me your hands.”

The girl, who is black, barely makes a sound. The class watches in silence. And now the videos have gone viral, garnering millions of views on multiple social media platforms. More significantly, the videos have rekindled a national discourse on race, excessive force, and the presence of officers in schools.

Since the incident took place at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C., the girl has been charged under the state's 2006 disturbing schools law, which is a misdemeanor with a maximum of a $1,000 fine or, up to 90 days in jail. She was released home to her parents. The uniformed officer, Deputy Ben Fields, who is white, has been placed on administrative duties as the Richland County Sheriff's Department is now investigating the altercation.

"It's very disturbing what happened today. It's something I have to deal with and that's what we're going to be doing," Sheriff Leon Loff told WLTX-TV. He said he has requested the FBI and the US Dept. of Justice undertake an independent probe into what took place Monday morning.

After the confrontation, another student was arrested. Niya Kenny, 18, says she was taken into custody by Fields after vocally objecting to his actions.

"I had never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl. A big man, like 300 pounds of full muscle,” she said. “I was like 'no way, no way.' You can't do nothing like that to a little girl. I'm talking about she's like 5'6"."

She was also charged with disturbing schools.

Dr. Debbie Hamm, the school district’s superintendent, and school board chairman Jim Manning have both expressed concern for the incident in separate statements.

"I have watched the video several times and there is no doubt that the video is extremely disturbing. The amount of force used on a female student by a male officer appears to me to be excessive and unnecessary,” Mr. Manning said. “As the parent of a daughter in Richland School District Two I can assure you that we are taking this matter very seriously.”

Fields has been sued twice on the job – once in 2007, for alleged false arrest and excessive use of force, and another case that will go to trial in January. The jury ruled in favor of him in the former.

The sheriff’s deputy has also been the subject of praise, having won the Culture of Excellence Award as a school resource officer at Richland County elementary school in 2014. He had been part of the sheriff’s office since 2004, and became a school resource officer four years later.

For some, the violent video is reminiscent of arrests made at an end-of-school pool party in Texas. Also captured on film, the June incident involved cops cursing at a group of black teenagers and one pulling out a gun and then pinning a girl to the ground.

The police actions in Texas, and the kind witnessed in Monday’s classroom confrontation, feed suspicions that police officers’ actions are motivated by race.

For others, the incident at Spring Valley High School reflects a broader debate of whether law enforcement officers are necessary in schools. Amid concern about school shootings, some districts have hired resource officers as a source of protection. But the officers also assumes the role of disciplinarian, a role that some teachers are administrators aren't willing or aren't well equipped to assume.

"We in our schools, at least in the United States, are too quick to call in the police to deal with behavioral situations," Sunny Hostin, a CNN legal analyst and former federal prosecutor, tells the news organization. 

Physical restraints and arrests within schools are part of the school-to-prison pipeline, youth advocates say. The pipeline, according to some authorities, disproportionately affects students of color and ends up promoting youth incarceration.

Tony Robinson Jr., another student who witnessed the confrontation, told WLTX that it all happened because his classmate had her cellphone out for a moment. When she wouldn’t leave the classroom after her teacher and, later, a school administrator requested, Fields was summoned to the scene.

"I've never seen anything so nasty looking, so sick to the point that you know, other students are turning away,” he said. "That's supposed to be somebody that's going to protect us. Not somebody that we need to be scare off, or afraid."

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