October 27, 2015 / 12:53 AM / 2 years ago

FBI opens probe of violent arrest of black South Carolina student

COLUMBIA, S.C. (Reuters) - Federal authorities launched a civil rights investigation on Tuesday into a white deputy's arrest of a black high school student in South Carolina, after video showed him slamming the teenager to the ground and dragging her across a classroom.

The actions by officer Ben Fields at Spring Valley High School in Columbia on Monday drew swift condemnation after video recordings of the incident went viral and raised fresh concerns over whether the use of police in schools can criminalize behavior once handled by educators.

For a Reuters TV report on the incident, click here: watch.reuters.tv/mwT

At a time of heightened scrutiny of use of force by police, particularly against minorities, the president of the South Carolina chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People said he felt race was a factor in the arrest and called for Fields to be charged with assault.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said he would entrust the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Justice Department with leading the criminal probe, with the state law enforcement division assisting.

"We do not want any issues with the community or those involved having questions concerning conflicts of interest in this investigation," Lott said in a statement.

A hashtag #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh trended nationwide within hours of the 18-year-old student's arrest, which also garnered attention on Tuesday from Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

"There is no excuse for violence inside a school," Clinton tweeted. "The #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh is unacceptable —schools should be safe places."

Fields, who did not reply to an email request for comment, has been placed on administrative duties and barred by Richland School District Two from working in any of its 40 schools during the investigation.

The deputy 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 also is 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 also works as the strength and conditioning coach and defensive line coach for Spring Valley High's football team, according to its website.

One of the pupils who videotaped the arrest told local news station WLTX that Fields was called to the classroom after a student had her cell phone out and refused to hand it over to the teacher.

Richland County Sheriff's Department Officer Senior Deputy Ben Fields is pictured with Karen Beaman (R), Principal of Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary School after receiving Culture of Excellence Award at Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina on November 12, 2014.Richland County Sheriff's Department/Handout

When the teen refused Fields' request to move from her seat, things quickly turned physical, said the student witness, Tony Robinson Jr.

A video shows Fields approaching the sitting girl, wrapping his arm under her chin and flipping her desk with her in it.

Fields then drags her from the chair and tosses her on the floor, as students look on, before handcuffing her.

"It was definitely a scary experience," Robinson told WLTX.

The girl, who did not appear to resist or argue, was arrested for "disturbing school" and released to her family, sheriff's Lieutenant Curtis Wilson said.

A founding member of the Richland Two Black Parents Association said the group was saddened but not surprised by the encounter in a school district that in the past two decades has transformed from being predominantly white to majority black.

The parents association, which has 5,700 members after being formed a year ago, has called for a Justice Department probe into what it says are long-standing discriminatory practices by the school district, said Stephen Gilchrist, who has one son who graduated from Spring Valley High and another attending now.

Gilchrist said the district has a legacy of expelling and suspending large numbers of African-American students, who make up nearly 59 percent of the district's 27,500 pupils.

A school spokeswoman did not respond to Gilchrist's claim.

"We don't want this to be about just this officer," Gilchrist said. "There is much more going on that has helped create a culture of discrimination within this district."

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.

Lawsuit documents said Fields' "unprovoked anger escalated to the point that he grabbed plaintiff Carlos Martin, slammed him to the ground, cuffed him, began kicking him and chemically maced him until his clothing was drenched and the contents of the can of mace was depleted."

Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina and Suzannah Gonzales in New York; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by James Dalgleish

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