She Recorded Her Classmate's Arrest, Then Got Arrested, Too
Q&A with former student Niya Kenny
Niya Kenny had just intended to document what she feared could be a bad situation. But when she encouraged her classmates at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C., to join her in recording a student’s violent arrest by a school police officer in 2015, she never suspected the videos would spread across the internet and ignite fierce debate about school discipline and law enforcement.
Officer Ben Fields, the school-based sheriff’s deputy who dragged her classmate from her desk after the girl refused to give up a cellphone, later arrested Kenny on the same charge—disturbing a school. The charge stemmed from Kenny’s recording of the incident and her loud protests of the officer’s behavior. Fields was fired, but federal authorities said they won’t charge him with criminal civil rights violations.
Kenny first saw one of her classmate’s videos later that day on the local TV news as she waited to be booked into jail. A self-described “good kid,” she did not expect to be arrested that day.
Now 19, Kenny didn’t return to Spring Valley, opting instead to finish a GED. She has joined other South Carolina students in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the state’s laws against “disturbing schools” and disorderly conduct. Those laws are overly broad and applied disproportionately to black students, their lawyers argue.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. Listen to an audio version here:
Walk me through what happened in math class that day.
[The teacher had] assigned us something on the laptop so the class was quiet doing individual work on our laptops, just like any other day.
I noticed him kind of whispering to [the girl who was arrested] a few seats away from me, because I had to move my seat this day, because my laptop had actually died. I was plugging it up, sitting in a different seat. That’s how I was so close to the incident. [The teacher is] talking to [the student who was arrested], and then I see him walk over to his desk, and he’s on the phone. I hear him say, “I need someone escorted out of my class.” Then I start to look at her like, ‘Oh is he talking about her?’ I hadn’t really known what was going on at that moment.
Like I said, the classroom was really quiet so they were talking in a hushed tone. Once he called an administrator, that’s who he called, [the administrator] comes in. He asks her, “Are you going to leave with me?” She just kind of sits there quiet.
Then [the administrator] walks out, and a few seconds later, maybe even a minute, he returns with Deputy Fields. [Fields] asks her is she going to leave. She just still kind of sits there quiet, and then that’s when you see what happens on the video.
What made you decide to record the arrest? Did you have any thoughts of what you would do with the video when you were shooting it?
You know, just because I was older, and this was my fourth year at Spring Valley, I had already known about [Fields] abusing his authority when it came to dealing with kids. I just started encouraging my younger classmates and I was like, “Take out your phones. Y’all record this because I feel like it’s not about to be pretty.”
How did you get arrested?
Everyone was just kind of scared and quiet, but I was the only one saying like, “She didn’t even do anything. How are y’all letting this happen to her?”
I was the only one who was really vocal about the situation, the only one. ... Two other grown men were in the class, and I was the only one who was vocal, protesting the situation.
Maybe [Fields] felt like, “Oh, she’s trying to challenge my authority as well, so I’m going to take her to jail.” I had no clue what was going through his head, honestly. ...
He turned around and he was like, “Oh, you have so much to say, you’re coming, too.”
At that time, he was still trying to handcuff her on the ground, so I thought he was just talking, right then and there. I had no idea that he was really going to come back for me, because he had taken her out of the classroom and then come back for me.
What was it like to go to jail?
Initially, I was like crying the whole entire time. I was nervous. I honestly thought I was going to get beat up in jail. But you know, the people in jail were also really supportive of the situation, especially when we were all sitting in the holding room and we all saw the video together.
I was telling them, I was like, “That’s why I’m in here, because I was telling him that’s not right to be throwing her like that, and he arrested me.”
Were you surprised at how much traction this got on the internet and the response?
I was extremely like shocked. I had no idea that this was going to become as big as it did. Then it brought so much attention to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Some students have said Officer Fields had a reputation in your school. Some people said he was well-liked. What did you know about him?
Actually both of those statements are actually true. He did have a history of abusing his authority when it came to dealing with students and disciplinary situations, but he was also liked in the school.
He was also a football coach and a weight-lifting trainer, so he developed relationships with mainly football players and students who played sports, athletes.
Would you have opted to finish high school at Spring Valley if this had not happened?
Of course, I would’ve tried to finish high school there, but the GED process was just easier, faster. I just really wanted to be done with school at that time.
Do you think it would have been hard to go back after the arrest?
Definitely, because like I said, there were some people who supported [Fields’] decision. ... I feel like teachers and faculty and staff, everyone would’ve treated me differently because of the situation, because you know, he lost his job because of that.
[Some students who supported Fields] even held a walkout, too, and they made T-shirts, like they drew on white T-shirts with markers that said, “Bring Fields Back,” or “Bring Back Fields.”
How did this arrest make you feel?
In the classroom, of course I was ... That was a traumatizing experience, so of course, I was like really tore up. I worked at a fast-food restaurant, and there were a lot of police officers, and it was like really close to the school.
There were like coaches who would come in there and students and teachers, everyone, people from Spring Valley, including other police officers, would come in. Every time I saw another police officer, it would just give me the worst anxiety, too.
At first, I used to kind of, you know, just start crying. There were times my mom had to come pick me up from work because I just, I couldn’t deal with it.
Police officers made me really uncomfortable after that situation. I don’t know if that was anxiety or what it was, but it just, that whole situation really did traumatize me, because I could not be around police officers after that, like at all. If a police officer tried to come to my register, I would just kind of say, “Hold on I have to get somebody else to take your order,” because I just couldn’t do it. I would get shaky and it was just bad.
How do you think the teacher and administrator should have handled the situation that day?
Me, personally, I feel like they were two grown men.
I felt like they could’ve stepped in, tried to say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa.”
Even a simple, “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” would’ve worked. Like, “No, that’s not how we handle situations here. You’re working in a school, that’s not how you handle kids. You’re supposed to know how to handle kids in a situation like this. Any type of stepping in would’ve worked, not just standing back and watching the whole situation.
It almost, it made it worse to see other adults allowing it to happen?
Vol. 36, Issue 19, Pages 12-13Published in Print: January 25, 2017, as She Recorded Classmate's Arrest, Then Got Arrested, Too