The student who encouraged others to film a deputy school resource officer as he tossed a fellow student from her desk in a Spring Valley High School classroom is suing the school district and the sheriff’s department.
Niya Kenny is suing Richland 2 and the Richland County Sheriff’s Department for false arrest, defamation and negligent supervision, according to the lawsuit, filed just before 5 p.m. Tuesday in state court in Richland County.
Kenny was initially charged with disturbing schools after she tried to intervene in the October 2015 incident, which made national headlines. The student who was tossed from her chair by former Deputy Ben Fields also was charged with disturbing schools. Both later had their charges dropped.
Kenny’s attorney, Bakari Sellers, said he will hold a media availability Wednesday at 1 p.m. to discuss the lawsuit.
Richland 2 spokeswoman Libby Roof said the district does not comment on pending lawsuits.
Sheriff Leon Lott said, “Sadly, lawsuits are part of our job. Our system is designed for them to be addressed in court and not through the media.”
The student who was tossed was not identified by police, as she was a juvenile. Kenny was 18 at the time. Both left school.
Kenny was arrested by Fields after she “stood up and protested the assault of the minor,” the lawsuit said. Kenny was then “cuffed and paraded through three different offices” and then placed in a paddy wagon, the suit said.
Then Kenny “was wrongly expelled, forced to miss her prom and graduation,” the suit said.
Then-Richland 2 Superintendent Debbie Hamm and Lott later said school administrators should not have called the school resource officer into the classroom after the student would not put away her cellphone when asked to by a teacher. Lott told The State newspaper that deputies are in schools to deal with crimes, not discipline issues. But he also was critical of Fields’ actions.
Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson declined to bring charges against the deputy. Lott also asked the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate whether any civil rights had been violated. Fields is white; the former students are African-American.
Federal authorities in January said they didn’t have enough evidence to bring charges.
Fields, also in January, filed a defamation and negligence lawsuit against the sheriff’s department, also naming Lott and the school district as defendants.
Kenny, in conjunction with the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina, also has filed suit in federal court, challenging the disturbing-school charge that’s at the root of the case. The suit asserts the S.C. law has overly broad language that has been used “to draw thousands of adolescents into the juvenile and criminal justice systems.”
Critics say the law unfairly criminalizes students’ actions, is unconstitutional and unfairly affects black students more than whites.
The incident has prompted a broader look at the role of school resource officers in classrooms nationwide.
In part because of the Spring Valley incident, the U.S. Justice Department and the sheriff’s department entered into a joint agreement in August 2016 involving school resource officers. Lott will overhaul his department’s program to make sure officers working in schools don’t get involved in “classroom management or school discipline matters that should be appropriately handled by school staff,” according to a public statement by the Justice Department.
As part of the agreement, Richland school resource officers will be required to limit their use of force and handcuffs on school grounds unless absolutely necessary.
The Richland sheriff’s department has approximately 87 school resource officers. At the time the agreement was announced, Lott said he welcomed it as an initiative that will make things better for both officers, school staff and students.