Update: Federal investigators, including the U.S. Department of Justice, have opened a civil rights investigation into the matter. ”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,” FBI Special Agent in Charge David Thomas said in a statement Tuesday. “ 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.”
The FBI has been asked to investigate an incident at a South Carolina high school Monday in which a police officer appeared to body slam a female student and drag her across a classroom.
The confrontation, captured on cellphone video at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina, has drawn intense criticism on social media, from the school district’s Black Parents Association — the student is African-American — and the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, which called the deputy’s actions “egregious.”
“There is no justification whatsoever for treating a child like this,” the ACLU said in a statement.
In a news conference, a spokesman for the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, Curtis Wilson, identified the deputy in the video as Ben Fields, one of two school resource officers assigned to Spring Valley. Fields had been placed on administrative duty pending an internal investigation, Wilson said, adding that the officer was declining interview requests.
Fields, who is white, is named as a defendant in a 2013 federal lawsuit that claims he “unfairly and recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity.”
The plaintiff in the suit, Ashton James Reese, was expelled from Spring Valley after Fields said that he was a gang member who had taken part in a “huge gang fight.”
In the lawsuit, Reese denied that he had ever been involved in a gang.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott did not attend the news conference — he was out of town, Wilson said — but Lott had watched the video and was “disturbed.”
Lott “has questions like everybody else,” Wilson told reporters. “He wants answers to those questions.”
Wilson confirmed that Lott placed to a call Monday to Dave Thomas, the Special Agent in charge of the FBI for South Carolina, to request an independent investigation of the incident. Lott followed up Tuesday morning with a formal written request to Thomas and U.S. Attorney William Nettles.
A male student at Spring Valley told NBC News that the girl had ignored requests by the teacher to go to a “discipline office.” The officer then entered the classroom and asked if she would go on her own or if he had to make her, according to the student.
When the student refused to leave, Lott told NBC affiliate WIS earlier Monday, the officer “was requested to take action.”
She was told that she was under arrest, but again refused to leave the classroom, Lott told the station. “The video then shows the student resisting and being arrested.”
In a statement, school district superintendent Debbie Hamm said the district “is deeply concerned” about the confrontation.
“Student safety is and always will be the District’s top priority,” Hamm said. “The District will not tolerate any actions that jeopardize the safety of our students.”
Hamm added that the district is working “closely” with the sheriff’s department to “conduct a thorough and complete investigation.”
“Pending the outcome of the investigation, the District has directed that the school resource officer not return to any school in the District,” Hamm said.
In a statement, the Richland Black Parents Association said they were “heartbroken as this is just another example of the intolerance that continues to be of issue in Richland School District Two particularly with families and children of color.”
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.