Violent arrest of black US student prompts civil rights case

US federal authorities start civil rights investigation into white school officer's arrest of black student

Photo by: AP
Photo by: AP

This image combo made from video taken by a Spring Valley High School student on Oct, 26, 2015, shows Senior Deputy Ben Fields trying to forcibly remove a student from her chair after she refused to leave her high school math class, in Columbia, S.C.

Federal authorities launched a civil rights investigation on Tuesday (October 27) into 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 went viral and raised fresh concerns over whether the use of police in schools can criminalize behaviour once handled by educators.

At a time of heightened scrutiny of the use of force by police, particularly against minorities, the president of the South Carolina department of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said he felt race was a factor in the arrest and called for Fields to be charged with assault.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said he would entrust the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department with leading the criminal probe, with the state law enforcement division assisting.

Columbia, South Carolina NAACP President Dr. Lonnie Randolph said the police officer's actions were racially motivated.

"I'm comfortable saying that race is a factor, race is indeed a factor and of course people will admit something else and say that it isn't but we do have a problem in South Carolina and we do have a problem in America" Randolph told a news conference.

A hashtag #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh trended nationwide within hours of the 18-year-old student's arrest, which also garnered attention on Tuesday from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

Fields, who did not reply to an email request for comment, has been placed on administrative duties and barred by Richland School District Two from working in any of its 40 schools during the investigation.

The deputy joined the sheriff's office in 2004 and 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."

One of the pupils who videotaped the arrest told local news station WLTX that Fields was called to the classroom after a student had her cell phone out and refused to hand it over to the teacher.

When the teen refused Fields' request to move from her seat, things quickly turned physical, said the student witness, Tony Robinson Jr.

A video 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 did not appear to resist or argue, was arrested for "disturbing school" and released to her family, sheriff's Lieutenant Curtis Wilson said.

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.

Lawsuit documents said 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."