Sheriff to Decide If Deputy Keeps Job After Classroom Arrest

28 Oct 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

FBI, US Justice Department probe violent Spring High school arrest.

U.S. federal authorities said yesterday they are investigating whether a deputy’s arrest of a student who refused to leave her high school math class violated federal civil rights laws. Federal help was sought by Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, who placed Senior Deputy Ben Fields on leave after the confrontation at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina.

— Videos of a white police officer throwing a black high school girl to the floor of a classroom thrust this community into an unsettling national discussion Tuesday about whether black students are disproportionately punished. South Carolina’s National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People president, Lonnie Randolph Jr., denied that, saying “race is indeed a factor.” “To be thrown out of her seat as she was thrown, and dumped on the floor . . . The incident, which the Justice Department said Tuesday that it would investigate, follows national studies showing that black students were far more likely than whites to be disciplined in public schools, even for comparable offenses. That issue was receiving intense scrutiny here long before the videos of Monday’s incident were released, prompting the district to form a task force last year to examine its practices. She said there is strict protocol to ensure that the police officers assigned to the school only intervene in criminal behavior and not disciplinary incidents. “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,” Victoria Middleton, executive director of the rights group American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

Last year, the racial divide in the Richland School District Two, encompassing parts of this city and its suburbs, led to formation of the Black Parents Association, and contributed to a bitter campaign for control of the district’s board. The civil rights investigation is being conducted by the Columbia field office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the bureau’s Civil Rights Division and the US Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina, the FBI and DOJ confirmed on Tuesday to AFP.

Lott said the officer has been suspended without pay since Monday and that an internal investigation to determine whether there were any violations of use-of-force policy would be wrapped up within the next 24 hours. One result has been the deployment of an estimated 14,000 officers on campuses across the country, a number of them carrying weapons, and a number of them now tasked with duties that go well beyond holding shooters and gangsters at bay. The sheriff also said the student was not injured as far he knew, though “she may have had a rug burn or something like that,” and that whether or not she hit the officer was not relevant to his investigation into whether the officer should keep his job.

And while some students have called the deputy overly rough or racist, others, of all races, defend his record in the school — if not his behavior on the videos. NBC News reported Fields was previously named as a defendant in a 2013 federal lawsuit that claimed he “unfairly and recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity.” It follows in a line of highly publicized incidents in which police have attacked African-American residents with excessive or even deadly force, incidents that are increasingly being caught on film. And infractions that once resulted in detention may now leave students with criminal records — a phenomenon that critics say disproportionately affects African American students. But law enforcement organizations have recently started to suggest the increased publicity garnered by violent interactions recorded on mobile phones was hurting their ability to patrol neighbourhoods or act against possible suspicions. The girl in the South Carolina incident, captured on other students’ cellphone videos, faces a misdemeanor charge under South Carolina’s “disturbing school” law. “What we find is school safety becomes conflated with school discipline — officers dealing with classroom disruptions, dress code infractions, minor discipline infractions that in the past would have been handled by teachers,” said Janel George, a senior education policy counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

Speaking to a conference of police chiefs on Tuesday, President Barack Obama expressed concern that complaints against police and racial bias have been ignored for far too long, but he acknowledged police concerns. “With today’s technology, if just one of your officers does something irresponsible, the whole world knows about it moments later,” he said in Chicago. “And countless incidents of effective police work rarely make it on the evening news, so it’s important for us not to just pounce and jump on anything that happens and immediately just draw conclusions.” In the 2011-12 school year, black students represented about 16% of the student population, but accounted for 27% of all student referrals to law enforcement, and 31% of school-related arrests, according to a federal report from the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The statistics were so alarming that last year Los Angeles Unified School District police stopped giving citations for fighting, petty theft and other minor offenses in response to growing research showing that when police handle such matters, struggling students are more apt to drop out and get in more serious trouble with the law. School districts have stepped up the police presence on campus to “bridge the gap between police officers and youth.” When officers are well trained and work closely with school officials, arrests in schools go down rather than up, he said.

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department says school resource officers have three roles: serve as deputies, provide a positive role model and counsel students with problems. “It takes such a unique officer to do this job,” said Canady, whose organization trains school officers. “Kids are going to say things you’re not going to like, they’re probably going to make you mad, but there’s a certain part of that that’s just adolescence.” But training is just a fraction of the challenge. And South Carolina, including Richland, relies much more on suspension than the nation as a whole; 24 percent of public school students in the state were suspended at least once that year, compared with 13 percent nationwide. Lott noted South Carolina’s disturbing-school law makes it a misdemeanor “to interfere with or to disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of any school or college in this state,” which could apply to a broad range of behavior. “I think sometimes our officers are put in uncomfortable positions when a teacher can’t control a student,” Lott said. “We don’t need to arrest these students.

The district’s population is 46 percent black and 44 percent white, and before the elections on November 2014, there were four whites and three blacks on the school board. When the student refused the vice principal’s request to leave, officials called in the deputy, Fields, who also helps coach the school’s football team. The Bi-Partisan Committee’s favored candidates, including its black candidate, won three of the four seats, giving the board four black and three white members.

This year, the district’s task force on student misconduct recommended the adoption of policies specifying “a consistent set of consequences for infractions at each level.” James McLawhorn, chief executive of the Columbia Urban League and a member of that task force, said that over the last generation, as the schools gradually shifted away from being mostly white, residents failed to grasp how the approach to discipline was also changing. The teacher could have waited until the end of class to deal with the student or could have brought in a counselor trained in de-escalation, Losen said. “What happened yesterday happens so often in our public schools,” George said, adding of African American students: “These are spaces where they should feel safe.

The number of students suspended here actually understates the district’s use of suspensions, because some are suspended more than once in the course of a year. Some Spring Valley students on Tuesday praised Fields, an assistant football coach, as fair and friendly, a professional, authoritative everyday presence in the halls of the vast tan complex set near a few big-box stores. “It was crazy — Deputy Fields was always nice to everyone,” said Quentin Jones, 15, a sophomore.

But, “there’s no reason for him to do that to a lady,” he said, “because he’s a grown, strong man.” Xavier Glover and Jaiden Garner, two 15-year-old black football players, said that like many coaches, Fields would yell at players to improve their performance, but they said he had students’ interests at heart. When the altercation occurred, students stood up, confused about what was happening, but the deputy told them, “sit down, or you all will be next,” said one student, Charles Scarborough, 16. The deputy also detained a second student, Niya Kenny, 18, who told a local television station that her only offense was objecting to his treatment of the other girl. “I was crying, like literally screaming, crying like a baby,” Kenny, 18, told WLTX. “I’d never seen nothing like that in my life, a man use that much force on a little girl.”

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