Columbia, SC (WLTX) - Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott has fired a deputy who forcibly removed a student from a Spring Valley High School classroom, saying the officer used improper techniques in an attempt to restrain the girl.
Lott announced his decision on the fate of Deputy Ben Fields Wednesday afternoon following an internal investigation. Lott said the formal decision to terminate fields was made around 11:30 a.m.
"Deputy Ben Fields did wrong this past Monday," Lott said. "It's not what I expect from my deputies, or what I tolerate from my deputies."
That probe's purpose was only to determine if Fields followed proper protocol in dealing with the student; separate investigations, led by the FBI, the U.S. Attorneys office, and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, will determine if there was criminal activity.
Lott said the decision was not hard to make, and was based on the evidence that was collected from witness interviews and at least three cell phone recordings of the incident.
Around 10:30 a.m. Monday, students were sitting inside a math class at Spring Valley and were working on their assignments. Lott says one girl in the class had her phone out instead of working on her project. The sheriff said the girl was told multiple times by her teacher to put the phone away, but she refused. According to the sheriff, an administrator then came to the classroom, and the girl refused his requests to comply.
At that point, Fields was called to the classroom to remove the girl.
"She was not allowing the teacher to teach and not allowing the students to learn," Lott said, calling the student very disruptive. "Their education was put on hold while this student had to be dealt with."
Videos that surfaced online captured part of what happened next. Fields can be heard telling the student to get up. A few moments later, he grabs the student as she was in her seat, causing the girl and the chair to flip over onto the floor. Fields can then be seen dragging the girl for several feet and restraining her on the ground.
Richland County Sheriff's Department website
Lott said the deputy had the right to put his hands on the student, but that when he threw the girl across the room, that's when he violated training.
"The maneuver that he used was not based on training or was acceptable," Lott said. "He was not trained to throw the student...when he threw her across the room he lost control of her."
Lott said the teacher and an administrator both told him that they supported the actions of Deputy Fields, and he'd received calls of support from parents and students. In the end, Lott said that didn't matter. "My decision was based on what he did as a deputy sheriff."
Lott said he had spoken with Fields, and said he believes it wasn't the officer's intent, and that the man felt he was doing his job. "If he probably had to do it over again, he'd probably do it different".
Lott said officers are trained to use verbal commands and pain compliance, and that physical force is always a last resort.
The sheriff said Tuesday he didn't believe the girl suffered any injuries, but in an interview with News19 Wednesday, attorney Todd Rutherford, who's representing the student, said she was hospitalized, and currently has a cast on her arm. Rutherford also said the girl is experiencing problems with her back. Related Coverage: Student in Video is Injured, is Wearing a Cast
When asked about the discrepancy, Lott said Wednesday that was the information he had been given by the officer and school administrators.
The girl was charged with disturbing schools, a broadly defined law in South Carolina that allows officers to arrest students for a wide range of minor offenses related to disrupting the daily activities of class. It is a misdemeanor.
The girl was then released to the custody of her guardians. A second student in the class, 18-year-old Niya Kenny, was also arrested on a disturbing schools charge. Lott said the girl used foul language and was also stopping learning from taking place, but Kenny said she was trying to stand up for her classroom. Previous Coverage: Arrested Student Said She Was Standing Up for Classmate
"I had never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl," Kenny told News19 Monday night following her release from jail. "A big man, like 300 pounds of full muscle. I was like 'no way, no way.' You can't do nothing like that to a little girl. I'm talking about she's like 5'6'.
Tony Robinson Jr., one of the other students in the classroom, saw something brewing, was one of those who pulled out his cell phone and recorded the event.
"I've never seen anything so nasty looking, so sick to the point that you know, other students are turning away, don't know what to do, and are just scared for their lives," Robinson said. "That's supposed to be somebody that's going to protect us. Not somebody that we need to be scare off, or afraid." Previous Coverage:Student Says He Was Afraid for His Life
But another student who recorded the incident, who wanted to remain anonymous, told News19 that the officer was just trying to do his job. "Everybody was commenting on something and they weren't there," he said. "They don't know the full story. I wanted to at least take some of the pressure off of him." Previous Coverage:Student Says Deputy Was Trying to Do His Job
Lott was grateful for the videos that were made of the incident. "Videos are something that we welcome," he said. "Hopefully one day soon we'll have them on all of our deputies."
Dr. Debbie Hamm, the district's superintendent,released this statement after Lott's decision:
"I want to thank Sheriff Lott and his department for their swift response. There may be some who think this is the end of the matter. In Richland Two, however, we continue to work closely with the Sheriff’s Department and independent federal and state investigating agencies to examine exactly what happened.
"We know important work is ahead of us as we thoughtfully and carefully review the decision-making process that may lead to a school resource officer taking the lead in handling a student disruption. Conversations that have already started will continue around how we work with the sheriff’s department on improvement and coordination of our work as educators and their work as law enforcement officers.
"Our primary goal is to de-escalate situations through problem-solving and communication techniques, while avoiding actions that escalate and result in unfortunate confrontations. We will continue to move forward with this approach."