In what seems to be an endless barrage of violence against black youth, another student has been assaulted by a police officer. Yesterday, Ben Fields, a sherriff’s deputy with the title “school resource officer,” violently arrested an unidentified black teenage girl seated at a desk in Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina. In the widely circulated student-recorded video that surfaced on the Internet right after the assault, Fields can be seen putting his arm around the girl’s neck and flipping her to the floor while she was still tangled in the desk. He then throws her across the floor and forcibly cuffs her hands behind her back. Both she and a classmate who cried out during the assault were arrested for disturbing the peace. They were released to their parents.
“The student was told she was under arrest for disturbing school and given instructions which she again refused,” Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said yesterday, adding that she had refused to leave the classroom after being told to put her cell phone away. “The video then shows the student resisting and being arrested by the SRO.”
A classmate who videotaped the assault, Tony Robinson Jr., gave WLXT the following account, noting that the girl had pleaded with authorities at points because “she really hadn’t done anything wrong”:
We were doing an assignment on the computer, and I believe the girl had her phone out. And so our teacher, Mr. Long, came over, asked for the phone, you know. She denied, said, "No," then shortly after that, he threatened to call an administrator. … When [the administrator] came, [he] tried to get her to move and pleaded with her to get out of the seat. She still denied, because she really hadn’t done anything wrong. She said that she had [taken] her phone out but it was only for a quick second, you know. [She was saying,] "Please," really kind of begging, [being] apologetic on what happened and everything. So next the administrator called the resource officer, Deputy Fields, and when he came in, the first thing he said was—he asked my friend to move the desk. And to me that is a sign of—he could already tell what he was about to do, you know as far as the precaution he was going to take for [my friend]. So after he told him to move the desk, he did, and the video shows [Fields] shutting her Chromebook and putting it on another person’s desk. He asked her again, “Will you move? Will you move?” She said, “No. I have not done anything wrong.” He said, “I’m going to treat you fairly.” And she said, “I don’t even know who you are,” I believe you can hear that in the tape. And that is where it started right there.
“There is no justification whatsoever for treating a child like this,” Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina told The State. “Regardless of the reason for the officer’s actions, such egregious use of force—against young people who are sitting in their classrooms—is outrageous. School should be a place to learn and grow, not a place to be brutalized. We must take action to address the criminalization of children in South Carolina, especially at school.”
Sheriff’s department spokesperson Lt. Curtis Wilson said that Fields, who is white, has been placed on unpaid administrative leave pending an investigation. This morning, Sheriff Lott told the media that he asked both the FBI and the Justice Department to investigate the incident.
“The public wants answers. I want answers too and we’re going to get them very quickly, and we’re going to make sure the public knows what we’re going to do and why we’re going to do it. There’s nothing that we’re going to hide at the Sheriff’s Department,” Lott said, promising that it will be handled swiftly. “His actions reflect on all of us and I’m about as upset as anybody can be right now.”
This is not Fields’ first incident. WISTV reports that the officer—who has been employed by the sheriff’s department, not the school district, since 2004—was unsuccessfully sued in 2007 for using excessive force and violating free speech while arresting a man. And he is currently a defending in a case brought by a Spring Valley High School student who says he was wrongfully expelled in 2013. Fields was previously assigned to Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary School, where he received the Culture of Excellence Award.
The Richland Two Black Parents Association issued a statement this morning in response to the sheriff’s request for an independent investigation:
The unfortunate actions of this police officer [have] revealed what many African-American parents have experienced in this district for a very long time. This is just another example of why we must have an independent assessment from various parties including the Department of Justice to examine policies and practices in the District. We applaud the federal government’s inquiry.
The Richland Two School District Superintendent Dr. Debbie Hamm also released a statement on the incident, which includes a promise that Fields will not be welcomed back into any of their schools:
Student safety is and always will be the District’s top priority. The District will not tolerate any actions that jeopardize the safety of our students. Upon learning of the incident, school and district administrators began an investigation. We are working closely and in full cooperation with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department to conduct a thorough and complete investigation. Pending the outcome of the investigation, the District has directed that the school resource officer not return to any school in the District.
The other student who was arrested, 18-year-old Niya Kenny, said her charge came from standing up for her classmate. “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. 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 told WLTX.
Where can you be black? Not in high school in America. When can you be black? Not when you’re a teenage girl. #AssaultAtSpringValley
— #DJS4 is back! (@DanielleDASH) October 26, 2015
Would it matter "what she did" if she was your daughter? Would it matter if she was your sister? News flash: she is. #AssaultatSpringValley
— Charles F Coleman Jr (@CFColemanJr) October 27, 2015
If our civil rights were protected as much as Law Enforcement Officers Bill of Rights, society would be better. #AssaultAtSpringValley
— Kwame Rose (@kwamerose) October 27, 2015
— BYHISGRACE8 (@BYHISGRACE64) October 27, 2015
Could you imagine the national outcry if it were a white girl tossed by a power-lifting Black cop? #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh
— B H A Z E L W O O D (@AudreBored) October 27, 2015
— AAPF (@AAPolicyForum) October 27, 2015
There is also a petition demanding that Fields be fired:
— ColorOfChange.org (@ColorOfChange) October 27, 2015
Watch the video below.
Another, longer video shot from a different angle by classmate Robinson can be seen here. “I’ve never seen anything so nasty looking, so sick to the point that you know, other students are turning away, don’t know what to do, and are just scared for their lives," he told WLXT. " That’s supposed to be somebody that’s going to protect us. Not somebody that we need to be scared of, or afraid.”