Equity & Diversity

FBI, Justice Department Open Civil Rights Probe of S.C. Student Arrest; Officer Fired

By Evie Blad — October 27, 2015 5 min read
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The full video of the Spring Valley High School Police Officer brutally assaulting a peaceful student. pic.twitter.com/oHIS8GrtSS -- Shaun King (@ShaunKing) October 26, 2015

Update: The officer has been fired.

The FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina will investigate the recorded arrest of an African-American girl who was violently thrown from her seat by a school resource officer in front of her classmates on Monday.

“The Columbia FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances surrounding the arrest of a student at Spring Valley High School,” the U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement. “The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence in order to determine whether a federal law was violated. As this is an ongoing investigation, per Department of Justice policy we are unable to comment further at this time.”

It’s unclear how the student was behaving before her classmates started filming, but she does not appear to be loud or violent in the video. Multiple media outlets are reporting that a school administrator called the officer to the classroom after the student defied a teacher’s command that she put her cell phone away and then refused to follow the administrator to his office.

Reaction to videos of the incident, filmed by the student’s peers, snowballed overnight, and civil rights and student advocacy groups sought to seize the moment as an opportunity to raise greater concerns about race, justice, and the role of police in schools.

Update: Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Wednesday that the school resource officer, Deputy Ben Fields, was fired as a result of an internal investigation. Lott had also previously called for federal investigations into the incident.

“Should [Fields] have ever been called there? That’s something we’re going to talk to the school district about,” Lott said at a Wednesday news conference.

The Richland school district said in a statement Monday night that officials are “deeply concerned about an incident that occurred at Spring Valley High School today.”

“Student safety is and always will be the District’s top priority,” the statement said. “The District will not tolerate any actions that jeopardize the safety of our students.”

“I have watched the video several times and there is no doubt that the video is extremely disturbing,” school board chairman James Manning said in a statement. “The amount of force used on a female student by a male officer appears to me to be excessive and unnecessary.”

The district plans to add additional training for staff, teachers, and administrators about when it is and is not to involve a school resource officer in a discipline situation, Manning said at a news conference Tuesday afternoon. In addition, the district will work with the sheriff’s office to develop better standards for screening and training school-based officers.

Who Is Responsible?

Long before the district announced those changes, some civil rights and student advocates questioned whether the officer is the only one who is possibly at fault. The reactions of teachers and students in the videos seem routine, they said, suggesting that the presence of a police officer in the school’s classrooms is not unusual. Others questioned why school officials involved law enforcement in what seemed to be a routine disciplinary situation and why the officer did not employ any deescalation techniques with the student.

“The video underscores the problem with police in schools,” Advancement Project Co-Director Judith Browne Dianis said in a statement. “Instead of de-escalating the situation, Deputy Ben Fields dehumanized and criminalized a Black teenage girl. Current police culture has no place in our schools. Too often, police turn a place of learning into a place where handcuffing, arresting and criminalizing young people is normalized. The brutality of the actions taken by Deputy Fields in the video serves as yet another reminder that police officers do not belong in our classrooms and hallways.”

Concerns About the Role of Police in Schools Are Not New

After high-profile incidents of school violence, like the shootings at Columbine High School and Sandy Hook Elementary School, lawmakers often call for increased security and police presence at schools.

But some groups have said school districts often don’t do enough to ensure that the police in their buildings, who are often employed and paid by outside law enforcement agencies, understand how to properly interact with students. This can lead to overly harsh discipline and arrests for relatively minor infractions, they say, a problem that disproportionately affects students of color.

While black students made up 16 percent of public school enrollment during the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which federal data is available, they represented 27 percent of those referred to law enforcement by schools and 31 percent of those who were subject to school-related arrests.

Some groups, like the Dignity in Schools Campaign, have responded by saying police should not be in schools at all. Others have said concerns can be addressed through carefully crafted agreements between schools and law enforcement agencies.

The National Association of School Resource Officers, which provides training for many school-based police, has said SROs should not be involved in discipline.

“The first step in intervention in a school disciplinary matter should be by the school disciplinarian - the principal or assistant principal, not the police officer,” school safety consultant Ken Trump said in a statement about the video. “If a situation becomes violent or a student has weapon, the officer can and should intervene when needed. But caution must be taken not to put the officer in a position where he or she will be forced to turn to an arrest as a solution that an administrator should have tried to handle in the first place.”

Further reading on police in schools:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.