Federal authorities said on Tuesday they will investigate a white deputy’s arrest of a black high school student in South Carolina, after video showed him slamming the teenager to the ground and dragging her across a classroom.
The actions by officer Ben Fields at Spring Valley High School in Columbia on Monday drew swift condemnation after video recordings of the incident were picked up by media outlets and posted on social media.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Justice Department opened a civil rights probe of the arrest to determine if federal law was broken, the agencies said in a statement.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott sought the independent investigations of the incident, which comes amid heightened scrutiny of the use of force by U.S. police, particularly against minorities.
A hashtag #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh was trending nationwide within hours of the 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.”
Fields has been placed on administrative duties, meaning for now he will not patrol streets or work as a school resource officer, said sheriff’s Lieutenant Curtis Wilson.
The Richland School District Two barred Fields from returning to any of its 40 schools during the investigation, and district officials said they would not tolerate behavior that jeopardized the safety of students.
“The amount of force used on a female student by a male officer appears to me to be excessive and unnecessary,” said James Manning, chairman of the Richland Two Board of Trustees.
Fields did not reply to an email request for comment.
The deputy has worked for the sheriff’s office since 2004 and joined 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.
Lott told a local television station that Fields went to a classroom Monday afternoon after a student refused a teacher’s request to leave.
A video apparently recorded by another pupil 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.
The girl, who does not appear to resist or argue, was arrested for “disturbing school” and released to her family, Wilson said.
A founding member of the Richland Two Black Parents Association said the group was saddened but not surprised.
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.
The district has a legacy of expelling and suspending large numbers of African-American students, he said.
A school spokeswoman did not immediately respond to Gilchrist’s claim. Nearly 59 percent of the district’s 27,500 students are black, officials said.
“What we have been saying for the last several years is that there are some real issues with the school district,” Gilchrist said. “We don’t want this to be about just this officer. There is much more going on that has helped create a culture of discrimination within this district.”
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.
Fields became agitated and increasingly angry while questioning the husband, court documents said. “Deputy Fields’ unprovoked anger escalated to the point that he grabbed plaintiff Carlos Martin, slammed him to the ground, cuffed him, began kicking him and chemically maced him until his clothing was drenched and the contents of the can of mace was depleted,” according to lawsuit documents.
The lawsuit also accused Fields of making ridiculing and suggestive comments to the wife. The couple appealed but the judgment was upheld.
(Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina and Suzannah Gonzales in New York; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by James Dalgleish)
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