A white deputy who slammed a black South Carolina high school student to the ground during a classroom arrest became the focus of a federal probe on Tuesday, as civil rights groups called for him to be fired and charged with assault.
Officer Ben Fields, 34, was suspended without pay after videos filmed by students showed him flipping a 16-year-old girl out of her chair and dragging her across a classroom for refusing a teacher’s demand to put away her cell phone.
The arrest at Spring Valley High School in Columbia on Monday drew swift condemnation on social media after the footage went viral and raised concerns over whether the use of police in schools can criminalize behavior once handled by educators.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department launched a civil rights probe to determine if federal laws were broken, as the president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People called for Fields to be charged with assault.
The incident comes at a time of heightened scrutiny of the use of force by police, particularly against minorities. Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said he did not know if race was a factor in the case.
The student, who was not identified, was not injured, he said. A third video that emerged on Tuesday showed her striking Fields after he put her in a head lock, Lott said.
The student “bears some responsibility. It started with her,” Lott said.
However, the sheriff described the arrest footage as disturbing and said the internal police investigation should conclude within the next day because “the facts pretty much speak for themselves.”
A hashtag #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh trended nationwide within hours of the student’s arrest, which also garnered attention on Tuesday from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
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“There is no excuse for violence inside a school,” Clinton tweeted.
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Fields, who did not reply to an email request for comment, 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 is also assigned presented him with a “Culture of Excellence Award.”
Fields “has proven to be an exceptional role model to the students he serves and protects,” the newsletter said.
He was also one of the coaches for the high school football team.
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.