Crime & Courts

UPDATE: Video shows confrontation between resource officer and student at Spring Valley High

The Richland County Sheriff’s Department is investigating an incident between a school resource officer and a female student at Spring Valley High School on Monday, after a video showing a confrontation was posted online.

The female student and a male student were arrested for disturbing the peace, said Richland County Sheriff’s Department spokesman Lt. Curtis Wilson. The resource officer, Senior Deputy Ben Fields, has been placed on administrative duties with pay pending the investigation’s results, according to Wilson.

While Fields will work at the Sheriff’s Department, he won’t be performing any duties at area schools. In a statement, the Richland 2 school district said it had “directed the school resource officer not return to any school in the district.”

The video shows Fields approach the female student seated in a desk. The resource officer proceeds to place his left hand on the female student’s left arm, before putting his right arm around her neck. Fields then flips the desk over, with the student still seated, before spinning it around and forcibly removing the student and trying to restrain her at the front of the classroom.

Wilson said no one was injured in the incident – neither the students nor Fields.

Wilson said prior to what is shown in the video, the female student was asked to leave the classroom and refused. Wilson said that was when the resource officer was called in.

Wilson said the Sheriff’s Department is in the process of determining what happened. That investigation is being handled internally, including the department’s Internal Affairs unit.

He said the male student has been detained, while the female student has been turned over to her parents.

Calls to Spring Valley High School weren’t answered, but Richland 2 Superintendent Debbie Hamm released a statement about the incident.

“Our district is deeply concerned about an incident that occurred at Spring Valley High School today. The incident took place between a school resource officer employed by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department and a student. ...

“Student safety is and always will be the district’s top priority,” Hamm said. “The district will not tolerate any actions that jeopardize the safety of our students.”

At a news conference, Wilson said Sheriff Leon Lott is asking for patience while the incident is investigated.

“Sheriff Leon Lott is out of town attending a law enforcement conference at this point, but did see the video, and was very disturbed by what he saw,” Wilson said. “As a matter of fact, he has questions just like everybody else does. He wants answers to those questions. Once he has those, he will address those.”

Hamm said the school and district administrators have begun an investigation into the incident. Wilson said the Sheriff’s Department and the school district will come together to take appropriate action once investigation is complete.

“We are working closely and in full cooperation with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department to conduct a thorough and complete investigation,” said Hamm.

Columbia Mayor Steve Benjamin issued a statement calling for an independent investigation.

“Though this incident involved a Richland County Sheriffs Deputy and not an officer with the Columbia Police Department, we cannot and will not accept this kind of behavior from any law enforcement officer and I firmly believe that we need an independent investigation to get to the bottom of this incident and see that justice is done,” Benjamin said, who’s seeking a transparent and swift investigation. “I have spoken with the Sheriff to express my concerns and he understands the gravity of this matter and assures me that it will be dealt with promptly.”

Spring Valley High School has two resource officers, and Wilson said another officer will be appointed to assume Fields’ duties during the investigation.

“There is no justification whatsoever for treating a child like this,” said Victoria Middleton, executive director of the ACLU of South Carolina. “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. School should be a place to learn and grow, not a place to be brutalized.

“We must take action to address the criminalization of children in South Carolina, especially at school.”

Echoing those sentiments was SC Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, a former Spring Valley student.

“I have watched with horror the disturbing video from Spring Valley high school today. As the father of two children, including a daughter, my thoughts and prayers are with the young lady, her family and the entire Richland 2 community who are all severely hurting right now. I cannot imagine what could have led to such a violent response from the law enforcement officer,” said Lourie.

The story has drawn national attention and reaction. On Twitter, Rev. Jesse Jackson wrote, “The police officer should be fired and the police department should be sued.”

Staff writer Glen Luke Flanagan contributed to this report.

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