Students and educators who watched a Richland County deputy manhandle and arrest a disruptive Spring Valley High School student last fall tended to side with the officer, though some say he could have handled the tense situation better.
That’s the portrayal from 14 eyewitnesses and the student’s guardian that emerges from an 11-page investigative summary released Friday of the case that, because of students’ videos, shook the Midlands and focused national attention on the role of school resource officers.
Neither fired white deputy Ben Fields nor the two African-American students charged with disrupting school will be prosecuted, 5th Circuit solicitor Dan Johnson announced after reviewing FBI and State Law Enforcement Division investigations.
Johnson said there wasn’t enough evidence to proceed with charges.
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He also said any prosecution was compromised by Fields’ quick firing by Sheriff Leon Lott as well as unspecified “administrative actions” taken against school personnel by Richland School District 2 officials.
On Oct. 26, Fields was called into the algebra class where a student refused to put away her mobile phone or leave the classroom when instructed to repeatedly by the teacher and a school administrator. She told one school official, “Get out of my face.”
Johnson’s report includes witnesses saying she hit Fields and locked her foot around the leg of her desk to avoid being pulled from it.
An observer identified in the report as “Witness Six” told investigators that to not have removed the student would have sent a message that “it was OK to disobey teachers and authority. “(S)he wanted to prove that she was bad,” the witness said.
The summary report does not identify most of the witnesses, so it’s unclear how many were students or Spring Valley officials. Most said the confrontation would not have happened if the student had left the room quietly. Instead, she ended up with a broken forearm, the report said.
The disruptive student’s guardian told investigators the teenager had minimized the confrontation. “(S)he didn’t think the altercation was that bad,” according to the report.
But when the guardian watched the video with the student, the teen said, “‘Oh,’ shrugged her shoulders and went back to her room.”
“(T)he guardian believes that Fields did not do anything that was inappropriate,” Johnson wrote.
Video was worse than reality, some say
The investigation into the deputy’s roughing up of the Spring Valley student also did not turn up enough evidence to prosecute a second student, Johnson said.
Niya Kenny encouraged fellow students to video what was about to happen, and at least three did. The charge filed against Kenny will be dropped, Johnson said.
He also said Kenny told investigators she made up the nickname “Officer Slam” for Fields. Kenny had told media outlets, including The State newspaper, that’s what other students called Fields.
At least two witnesses said the images in the video were harsher than what they saw that day in class. “Wow, it looked worse than what actually happened,” Witness 2 said.
The videos depict Fields forcibly lifting the disruptive student from her desk as it flips over and sending her sliding across the classroom floor.
Lott fired Fields two days after the incident, then asked the FBI and Justice Department to investigate whether any civil rights had been violated.
Separately from Johnson’s findings, The State has reported that Fields has been sued at least four times over his actions as a deputy. He won one case, a second was dismissed and a third had not gone to trial as of late October.
A Fort Jackson nurse who sued and lost an excessive force suit, told the newspaper Fields is a “ticking time bomb” who was bound to be overly aggressive.
Last month, the newspaper reported on the fourth case, a federal civil suit alleging that Fields in 2015 caused an unlawful arrest of a woman who was helping another Spring Valley student. The woman said he got a warrant charging her with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. But a county grand jury declined to indict, the woman’s attorney said.
Fields’ account of confrontation
Fields’ description of that October day at Spring Valley is different.
“I had placed my right arm over the student’s shoulder in an effort to prevent her from hitting me further and the desk began to fall backwards because of the momentum that the student’s movements had created,” the former deputy is quoted in the report. “As the desk fell back, I held the student by her left pant leg and her left arm and was trying to pull her up and out of the desk but the student’s right leg was locked in the desk.
“As I continued to use the muscling technique, the student’s leg broke free from the lock ... and the student slid across the floor.”
Lott said at the time that seeing the girl being flung was the deciding factor in dismissing the deputy. He said Fields’ actions made him want to “throw up.”
Johnson, the chief prosecutor in Richland and Kershaw counties, wrote that Lott’s firing and disciplinary actions taken by Richland 2 school officials hurt the criminal cases.
“The reality, from a prosecutorial standpoint, is that these administrative actions, taken prior to the completion of the investigation, have been injurious to the prosecution of the cases,” Johnson wrote. “(O)nce administrative action was taken against schools personnel, and the officer was fired, ... the prosecution of the case was compromised.”
Lott said Friday that both elected officials had different considerations.
“I had to make a personnel decision and Dan has to make a prosecutorial decision,” Lott said. Asked by The State if his decision hurt the criminal case, Lott said, “I made mine and he made his.”
Defense lawyers react
Scott Hayes, Fields’ attorney, said Friday, “I unequivocally agree” with Johnson’s findings. “Ben has been truthful with law enforcement about what occurred throughout this process.”
Hayes said Fields is not in police work now. But the lawyer would not say if Fields hopes to return to law enforcement.
But a federal investigation still looms.
“The DOJ (Department of Justice), as I understand, still has an open investigation,” Hayes said.
Todd Rutherford represents the two students, who moved to other schools after Spring Valley students held a demonstration in support of Fields.
“This process has been, for both of them, grueling. Both are obviously very happy that justice was served and to have this part of their lives put behind them,” said Rutherford, a Democratic House member from Richland County.
A Richland 2 watchdog group of African-American parents commended Johnson for dropping the charge against Kenny. “We have said all along that no student should be charged with criminal behavior regarding minor school offenses.”