Crime & Courts

Former school officer will not be charged, sues sheriff, school district

Federal authorities announced Friday they don’t have enough evidence to charge a former Spring Valley High School resource officer with criminal civil rights violations.

Former school resource officer, Deputy Ben Fields, made national headlines in 2015 when a student recorded him on video flinging another student across the room while attempting to arrest her. Fields had been summoned to the classroom by school staffers, who said the teen was being disruptive.

His employer, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, fired Fields two days after the incident. Lott then asked the FBI and the Department of Justice to investigate whether any civil rights had been violated.

Fields is white; the now-former student is black.

“After a careful and thorough investigation, the team of experienced federal prosecutors and FBI agents determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Fields willfully deprived the Spring Valley High School student of a constitutional right,” said a release by the justice department.

The release went on to say that mistakes, misperceptions, negligence or poor judgment are not enough to establish a federal criminal civil rights violation.

“The department will aggressively prosecute criminal civil rights violations whenever there is sufficient evidence to do so,” the release said.

Fields’ attorney, Scott Hayes, said Friday he was not surprised by the findings.

“This is the result that we fully expected and anticipated, because we believed that (the case) was clear on its face,” Hayes said. “It’s nice to have this cloud lifted from my client’s life.”

Hayes said it has been difficult for Fields to find a job in law enforcement while under investigation by the federal government.

Fields filed a defamation and negligence lawsuit on Tuesday against the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, also naming Lott and Richland School District 2 as defendants.

In the suit, Fields alleges an internal affairs investigator had distributed an internal memorandum that said Fields’ response to the incident was within department policy. Despite that information, Lott said he had “no choice” and fired Fields, the lawsuit said.

Fields said he’s suffered a “severe reputational loss,” and can’t work in law enforcement until he returns to the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy for training.

He also accused Lott and the sheriff’s department of depriving him of his rights. He said was treated differently because of his race.

“The unlawful conduct particularly implicated herein includes, but is not limited to: intentionally disadvantaging white employees in matters involving black individuals and disparate treatment to white employees with regard to the terms and conditions of their employment, and unequal treatment with regards to decisions to hire and fire,” the suit said.

Lott’s office would not comment on the allegations, citing the pending suit. But Lott did issue a statement related to the justice department’s findings, saying his department has moved forward since the incident.

“We have been involved in using this incident as a positive learning opportunity for law enforcement, schools and the public in defining the roles of SROs and school officials, not only in Richland County but throughout the United States,” Lott said.

“I hope and pray our legislators will also use the Spring Valley incident as a vehicle for change in the Disturbing Schools law,” Lott added. “Getting SROs out of the roles of discipline and classroom management has already made a significant impact.”

It’s not the first time that Lott voices criticism of the state’s broad disturbing schools law, which is what school officials cited when they asked Fields to arrest the teen accused of being disruptive in the classroom. Lott has previously said the law’s ambiguity has created a situation where it gets abused and misused, and has led to criminal charges of students instead of in-school disciplinary action.

The federal government was also critical of the law in November, filing a statement of interest in the case filed in August by the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina on behalf of former Spring Valley High School student Niya Kenny and others.

Kenny was arrested at the school for filming the incident between Fields and the other student. The video went viral online, sparking a debate about S.C. law and the role of police officers in classrooms.

In September, 5th Circuit solicitor Dan Johnson announced that no charges would be filed against Fields, Kenny or the girl Fields tossed across the classroom after pulling her from her desk.

Richland School District 2 said it appreciated the time and effort investigators put into the incident “that caused great concern for our district and our community.” The district said it respected the justice department’s findings.

“While the incident did not and does not define Richland Two or the school, district leaders and school board members were deeply grieved by it and took measures to address it,” the statement said.

The Richland Two Black Parents Association, however, was critical of the justice department’s announcement, saying it does not seek additional remedies to address what happened.

“The Richland Two Black Parents Association has long stated that it was the actions and policies of the school district which allowed the officer to be in the classroom in the beginning,” the statement read. “It was and still is our position that school resource officers should not be used as the school's first line of discipline for our students.”

Cynthia Roldán: 803-771-8311, @CynthiaRoldan