SC sheriff says student punched officer before violent arrest

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott told CNN on Tuesday about the existence of another video that purportedly shows the violent arrest of a student in a South Carolina classroom.

In that video, he said, the student can be seen resisting.

“It showed the officer as he puts his hands on her, her punching him,” Lott said, adding that the student’s behavior doesn’t justify what happened after.

“Just because she was wrong in what she was doing doesn’t make what he was doing completely right also,” the sheriff said.

He also told CNN that the school resource officer involved in the incident, Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields, has been suspended without pay.

Lott said he expects to make an employment decision about Fields within the next 24 hours.

“I’ll have the results of our internal investigation and at that point I’ll make my decision on whether the deputy will continue to be employed here or not,” he said.

This is a breaking news update. The original story continues below.

The video shows a South Carolina school resource officer standing over a student, seated at her desk. He puts his arm near her neck, then yanks her backward. The desk tips over and the student crashes onto the floor.

The uniformed officer doesn’t let go, sharply tugging the student toward the front of the classroom. She flies out of her desk and slides several feet across the floor.

“Give me your hands,” the officer says.

His is the only voice heard. Other students sit calmly and quietly, one of them covering his face with his hand.

Yet many haven’t been so quiet since the footage out of Columbia, South Carolina, surfaced.

Some have defended the officer, many pointing out that the video isn’t complete. It doesn’t show what happened before, including what the student did and how many times authorities — a teacher, a school administrator and finally the officer, Richland County Sheriff’s Deputy Ben Fields — had asked her to get up.

Others, though, think the video shows more than enough to warrant Fields’ firing. There’s no excuse, they say, for a law enforcement officer to act that way against a student who hasn’t harmed or threatened anyone.

“I can’t imagine any justification for treating a child like that in a classroom,” Victoria Middleton, the head of South Carolina’s ACLU chapter, told CNN’s “New Day” on Tuesday. “… Whatever led up to it, whatever rationale may be presented, does not justify the force with which that student was treated.”

Curtis Lavarello, one of more than 46,000 people employed full time as school resource officers, has seen this kind of scenario “played out hundreds of times, … and it’s one that can be handled so simply.” But he can’t explain why this one was handled as it was.

“We saw a pretty routine discipline issue become a criminal issue in just a matter of minutes,” said Lavarello, head of the School Safety Advocacy Council. “… It escalated needlessly.”

Student arrested; officer on administrative duties

At least two videos shot by students show the dramatic scene Monday inside a math classroom at Spring Valley High School. None show much of what happened before it, however.

According to Lt. Curtis Wilson, a spokesman for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, the instructor had asked the student “to leave the class several times.”

“The assistant principal was there as well,” Wilson said. “Then the officer was called to actually have the student removed from that location. The student refused.”

The student — who was released to her parents after the incident — faces a charge of disturbing schools, according to Wilson. Another female student, Niya Kenny, faces the same charge after allegedly standing up for the other teenager, her mother, Doris Ballard, told CNN.

Wilson said that as of Monday there were no reports of any injuries. But the teenage student pulled from the desk told Kenny she had a fractured arm and cuts on her face, said Ballard, who heard the story from her daughter.

The FBI and area U.S. Attorney’s Office have opened a civil rights investigation to determine whether federal laws were violated during the student’s arrest, a Justice Department spokesperson said.

Sheriff Leon Lott said the FBI will be the lead agency in a criminal investigation.

“We do not want any issues with the community or those involved having questions concerning conflicts of interest in this investigation,” he said.

The officer involved is white; the student is black.

“We’re deeply concerned, particularly with the assault of the student,” said Lonnie Randolph Jr., president of the South Carolina NAACP. “It was not the right way to respond.”

For now, Fields is on administrative duties and won’t return to his customary assignment at Spring Valley High. His boss, Lott, is determined to get to the bottom of what happened.

“He was disturbed by what he saw, (and) he has questions just like everybody else does,” Wilson said of Lott. “And he wants answers to those questions.”

‘She’s a kid’

Shocked Twitter users expressed their outrage online.

“I don’t care what this kid supposedly did. She’s a kid,” wrote Charles Clymer. “Did she threaten his life? No? End of discussion.”

Julia Carmel wondered what would have happened if there was no video footage.

“When a cop can be as violent as the #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh video in front of classroom audience, I fear what he’d do w/ nobody watching,” she tweeted.

James Manning, head of the Richland School District Two board, called the video “extremely disturbing.”

“There is absolutely no place in this district, or any other district for that matter, for what happened here yesterday. Our tolerance for it is zero,” he told reporters Tuesday.

In response to the incident, Manning said the district would evaluate and strengthen training of personnel with respect to when it’s appropriate to involve school resource officers, and work with law enforcement to beef up screening and training of such officers.

“What we all watched on that shamefully shocking video is reprehensible, unforgivable, and inconsistent with everything that this district stands for, what we work for, and what we aspire to be,” Manning said.

Analyst: The officer was within his rights

CNN law enforcement analyst Harry Houck, though, cautioned against jumping to conclusions about Fields, even if the video “looks really bad.”

If an officer decides to make an arrest, Houck said, he or she “can use whatever force is necessary.”

“So if you don’t comply with my wishes … then I can do whatever it takes to get you out of that seat and put handcuffs on you,” said Houck, a former New York police detective.

That said, Houck questioned why the officer was even called in to deal with the student in the first place.

“Cops are at a school in the event a crime is being committed,” he said.

“Too often, these teachers in these schools are calling on the cops because they have a disruptive student in the classroom. This is not a cop’s job.”

There were more than 82,000 school resource officers working full or part time at 43% of the nation’s public schools during the 2013-2014 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Such officers have the same credentials and capabilities of any police officer. But in light of where they work, they also have a distinct role as what a 2013 congressional report calls “a hybrid educational, correctional and law enforcement officer” serving as mediators and educators as well as law enforcers.

In this case, Lavarello from the School Safety Advocacy Council doesn’t think this school resource officer should have been involved in what “should have been left in the school discipline area.” Once the officer was involved, he could have deployed “a lot of strategies” like having the other students leave the room first.

“It’s something that can be handled relatively simply with training and having school administrators know when to best use a school resource officer,” he said. “And this doesn’t appear to be the case.”

Officer’s career marked with lawsuits, praise

Fields has not responded to CNN’s requests for comment. But court documents and a sheriff’s department newsletter offer a study in contrasts in his career.

The officer was a subject of two lawsuits in the past decade.

In the first case, Fields was accused of excessive force and battery in a 2007 lawsuit. A jury ruled in favor of the officer.

The second case is scheduled to go to trial in January. Fields is one of several defendants listed in a suit filed by a student against the school district over his expulsion.

Fields has also received commendations for his work in schools. He was given a Culture of Excellence Award by a Richland County elementary school where he worked as a school resource officer in 2014.

He joined the Richland County Sheriff’s Department in 2004 and the School Resource Officer Program in 2008.

Fields “has proven to be an exceptional role model to the students he serves and protects,” a sheriff’s department newsletter said.

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