Update on October 28 at 11:37 a.m.
The Justice Department has opened a civil-rights investigation into a confrontation at a high school between a white high-school resource officer and an African American female student in Richland County, South Carolina.
Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for the department, says the investigation will look into “the circumstances surrounding the arrest” of the unnamed girl at Spring Valley High School, and determine if federal laws were broken during the incident.
In a statement, Iverson added the inquiry will bring together the FBI’s field office in Columbia, South Carolina, the agency’s Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the District of South Carolina.
The sheriff’s department in Richland County, South Carolina, is also investigating the incident that was captured on video. The circumstances behind the confrontation at Spring Valley High School in Columbia are still unclear, but Sheriff Leon Lott, who requested the federal investigations, initially described the student as disruptive and said she had refused to leave the classroom.
There are at least two videos showing the same chain of events, both apparently filmed by students. They appear to show the resource officer approach the female student, who is seated at a desk. He places his left hand on her arm and then puts his right arm around her neck. At this point, her desk flips over with her still sitting at it. The officer then appears to drag the student and throw her a short distance before restraining her. At least one student, a male, can be seen in the foreground looking down at his desk.
The female student has not been identified, though she and another classmate were later arrested and charged with disturbing the peace. She was released to the custody of her parents. Niya Kenny, the other arrested student, was also later released. Kenny told local TV that she was arrested for screaming and praying loudly.*
The video has gone viral on social and traditional media and has drawn outrage. You can watch it below, though it is troubling.
Lott, the sheriff, later told WLTX, the local CBS affiliate: “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.”
The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, reports that no one was injured in the encounter.
The resource officer, Senior Deputy Ben Fields, has been placed on administrative duties pending the results of an investigation, Lieutenant Curtis Wilson, a spokesman for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, said. The Richland 2 school district, in a statement, said Fields won’t return to any school in the district pending the investigation.
Tony Robinson Jr., a student who recorded the confrontation, told WLTX: “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. That’s supposed to be somebody that’s going to protect us. Not somebody that we need to be scared of, or afraid.”
Fields, who has been with the Richland County Sheriff’s Office Department since 2004, joined the School Resource Officer Program in 2008. CNN reports that Fields was unsuccessfully sued in 2007 over the use of excessive force and the violation of free-speech rights. He is one of 10 defendants in another case, which is scheduled to go to trial in January, brought by a student who claims he was unlawfully expelled. But CNN also points out that Fields was was given a Culture of Excellence Award by a Richland County elementary school where he also worked last year as a school-resource officer.
Victoria Middleton, the executive director for the South Carolina branch of the ACLU, called the encounter an “egregious use of force.”
“School should be a place to learn and grow, not a place to be brutalized,” she said.
* This post has been updated to clarify that initial news report quoted a police spokesman as saying the student was arrested along with a male classmate. Police now say two people were arrested, both female.
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