(This October 27 story has been corrected in paragraph 2 to change girl’s age to 16 from 18 after sheriff’s office corrected information)
By Greg Lacour
COLUMBIA, S.C. (Reuters) - 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.
“There is no excuse for violence inside a school,” Clinton tweeted.
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.
Fields was called to a classroom on Monday to remove a student who refused a teacher’s commands to hand over her cell phone.
One of the pupils who videotaped the arrest told local news station WLTX that things quickly turned physical when the student also refused Fields’ request to move from her seat.
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,” the student witness, Tony Robinson Jr., told WLTX.
The girl, who did not appear to resist or argue in earlier videos, was arrested for “disturbing school” and released to her family, sheriff’s Lieutenant Curtis Wilson said.
Niya Kenny, 18, who was taken into custody after the incident on a charge of disturbing schools, told NBC TV’s Chris Hayes on Tuesday she felt she needed to stand behind her classmate, even if it meant her arrest.
“Before he (the officer) came to the class I was actually telling them (other students): ‘Take out your cameras because I feel like this is going to go downhill.’”
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 official said the district has made strides toward improving racial disparities that trouble schools nationwide.
“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.”
Additional reporting by Harriet McLeod in Charleston, South Carolina; Suzannah Gonzales in New York and Letitia Stein in Tampa; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by James Dalgleish and Paul Tait