Two days after a white Columbia, S.C. police officer was videotaped yanking a black, female high school student from her classroom seat, a federal civil rights investigation was opened by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“The Columbia FBI field office, the [Department of Justice’s] 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,” said Melaine Newman, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice. “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.”
But Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Andrea Zopp said she wants Congress to take action also.
“I am glad to hear that federal authorities are investigating this incident as a possible civil rights violation. I call on Congress to carefully monitor the investigation and use their legislative power to ensure that better training is provided to police officers who work in schools,” said Zopp. “More needs to be done on the local, state and federal to stop these incidents from happening.”
And with shootings taking place all over the country Zopp said the one place students should feel safe and be able to strive is school.
“Schools are places where students should be educated, empowered and made to feel safe,” she added. “Not flipped over in a desk, dragged across a floor and violently arrested in front of their classmates. Especially when they pose no threat to the authorities.”
Victoria Middleton, executive director for the South Carolina branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, agreed with Zopp.
“There is no justification whatsoever for treating a child like this. Regardless of the reason for the officer’s actions, such egregious use of force — against young people who are sitting in their classrooms — is outrageous,” said Middleton. “School should be a place to learn and grow, not a place to be brutalized.”
The Monday incident took place during an Algebra class at Spring Valley High School and was videotaped by classmate Tony Robinson.
“I thought no one would believe me without proof. I was scared and terrified but at the same time I knew what the officer was doing was inappropriate,” said Robinson.
The video showed Ben Fields, a resource officer for Spring Valley High School, standing over a student, seated at her desk. He puts his arm near her neck, then yanks her backward. The desk tips over and the student crashes onto the floor.
Fields doesn’t let go, sharply tugging the student toward the front of the classroom. The student flies out of her desk and slides several feet across the floor.
According to Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, the girl was being disruptive in the classroom and refused to leave when instructed by Fields.
“At that point he put her under arrest. If she had not disrupted the school and disrupted that class, we would not be standing here today,” said Lott. “So it started with her and it ended with my officer. What I’m going to deal with is what my deputy did.”
However, after watching the video Lott said he called Dave Thomas, special agent in charge of the FBI for South Carolina, and requested an independent investigation.
School Board Chairman James Manning said Fields, who is also a football coach at the school, has been placed on administrative leave.
According to the New York Daily News, Fields was sued in 2007 for an incident involving excessive force that occurred in 2005.
Many blacks said watching the video struck a nerve with them because it showed another a white police officer violently responding to an incident involving an unarmed black youth.
Zopp, a former Chicago prosecutor, said she would like to see more training provided for law enforcement officers.
“As leaders we have a responsibility to ensure that police and community relations are strengthened through better training, dialog and legislation. The countless incidents caught on tape make it clear that we must do better,” explained Zopp. “We must do all that we can to improve the way officers of the law conduct themselves and respond to conflict, especially in communities of color.”