COLUMBIA, S.C. –Authorities in South Carolina announced on Wednesday said Richland County senior deputy Ben Fields, the officer shown on video throwing a student to the ground inside a classroom, has been fired.
Fields is the Spring Valley High School resource officer whose actions Monday were recorded by students and ignited a firestorm on social media. Among the criticisms: His admitted use of “muscling techniques” to get the student out of her chair.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott made the announcement of the firing at a news conference. Fields had been on suspension without pay.
Lott said the student was “very disruptive” and “started this whole incident” by not allowing the teacher to teach and the students to learn.
The teacher and the school administrator told investigators they supported Fields in his actions, and that a third video showed the student striking Fields.
An investigation found Fields did not follow proper procedure by picking up the student and throwing her. And because of that, Fields was fired, Lott said.
But that’s only one part of the story. Federal investigators have gotten involved. Another student arrested from the classroom has spoken out. And the sheriff is criticizing a South Carolina law that he says muddles the role of school resource officers.
Sheriff: The student hit the officer
At least three videos have surfaced of the violent arrest at the school. The sheriff said one of the videos shows the girl attacking the officer before the arrest.
“When the officer puts his hands on her initially, she reaches up and she pops the officer with her fist,” he said.
Still, after watching all the footage, Lott told reporters that he “wanted to throw up.”
“There’s no justification for some of his actions,” the sheriff said. on Tuesday night.
The videos show the officer standing over the student, seated at her desk. He puts his arm near her neck, then yanks her backward. The desk, which is attached to her chair, tips over; the student crashes backward onto the floor.
But Fields didn’t let go, lifting her slightly off the ground. She flies out of her desk and slides several feet across the floor.
Conflicting reports on injuries
Sheriff’s department spokesman Lt. Curtis Wilson said there were no reports of any injuries. And the sheriff said he did not believe the girl was seriously hurt.
“To my knowledge, she wasn’t injured whatsoever,” Lott said. “She might have had a rug burn or something like that, but she was not injured.”
But Todd Rutherford, the student’s attorney, said his client now has to wear a cast on her arm. The girl also suffered a bruise on her head, her attorney said.
Student: It started with a cellphone
The 16-year-old girl who was taken to the ground was arrested on a charge called “disturbing schools.” A classmate, Niya Kenny, 18, was also arrested on the same charge.
Kenny said the incident started when her math teacher told the other girl to give up her cellphone. The girl refused and defied orders from the teacher and an administrator to leave the classroom.
That’s when Fields was called in, Kenny said. The school resource officer asked the girl to leave the classroom with him. Kenny said the offer moved the girl’s laptop off her desk.
“He grabbed her arm, and he put his arm around her neck at first. So that’s why you actually see her — if you get the right video — then you’ll see her trying to swing at him,” Kenny said.
“And at that point, he just flipped the desk back and grabbed her out of it and threw her. And that’s when you see her rolling across the floor.”
Kenny said she and other classmates had their cellphones recording because of the officer’s reputation.
“When he came in the classroom, I immediately told my classmates, ‘Get your phones out, get your phones out. I think this is going to go downhill.’ And it did,” Kenny said.
Her attorney, Simone Martin, said she has been told “by a number of the students that he is referred to as officer Slam as opposed to officer Fields. And that’s telling.”
Kenny was arrested and accused of disturbing school after yelling and cursing at the officer, according to an incident report.
Civil rights investigation
The FBI and 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 representative said.
The sheriff said the FBI is also to 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.
Analyst: Officer within his rights
Law enforcement analyst Harry Houck cautioned against jumping to conclusions about Fields, even if the footage “looks really bad.”
If an officer decides to make an arrest, he or she “can use whatever force is necessary,” said Houck, a retired New York police detective.
“So if you don’t comply with my wishes,” he said, “then I can do whatever it takes to get you out of that seat and put handcuffs on you.”
Sheriff criticizes law on disrupting school
Houck said the officer shouldn’t have been called in to deal with the student in the first place.
“Too often, these teachers in these schools are calling on the cops because they have a disruptive student in the classroom,” he said. “This is not a cop’s job.”
But South Carolina has a law that muddles the role of school resource officers, the sheriff said.
“Unfortunately, our Legislature passed a law that’s called ‘disturbing schools,’ ” he said.
“If a student disturbs school — and that’s a wide range of activities, ‘disturbing schools’ — they can be arrested. Our goal has always been to see what we can do without arresting the kids. We don’t need to arrest these students. We need to keep them in schools.”