Crime & Courts

FBI, U.S. Justice Department agree to investigate Spring Valley incident

RICHLAND COUNTY, SC The FBI and the U.S. Justice Department will investigate an incident between a school resource officer and a female student at Spring Valley High School that was caught on video Monday and posted online.

“The Columbia FBI Field Office, the Civil Rights Division, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of South Carolina have opened a civil rights investigation into the circumstances surrounding the arrest of a student at Spring Valley High School,” a Department of Justice spokesperson wrote in an email. “The FBI will collect all available facts and evidence in order to determine whether a federal law was violated. As this is an ongoing investigation, per Department of Justice policy we are unable to comment further at this time.”

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott on Monday asked Dave Thomas, special agent in charge for the FBI for South Carolina, and William Nettles, the U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, with the Justice Department, to investigate.

“I hope the community will remain calm so that we can conduct a thorough and thoughtful investigation,” Nettles told The State newspaper Tuesday afternoon. “At the conclusion of that investigation, we’ll be happy to discuss our findings with the community.”

The video has gone viral. It shows Senior Deputy Ben 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.

That teen and another female student were arrested for disturbing the peace, sheriff’s department spokesman Lt. Curtis Wilson said Sunday morning.

Fields has been placed on administrative duties pending the investigation’s results, according to Wilson.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund on Tuesday called the video “shocking.”

Fields is white; the student is African-American.

There have been racial tensions between black parents and the school district’s administration, with black parents most often citing concerns about the discipline of black students.

The Black Parents Association formed a year ago and now has 5,700 on its rolls. It was active in last year’s elections, which saw a black majority elected to the seven-member Richland 2 board for the first time.

The area’s demographics have changed dramatically in the past 10 years.

Over the past 15-20 years, Richland 2 has evolved from a predominantly white suburban district to a district that is now majority-minority.

Board member Calvin “Chip” Jackson said before last year’s elections that Richland 2 also is less affluent than in the past, which has also required the addition of new initiatives to address children in poverty, particularly those who move in and out of the district.

Richland 2’s student population is 59 percent black and 26 percent white, according to the district’s most recent numbers. The district is the Columbia area’s largest, with more than 27,000 students.

S.C. Sen. and former Spring Valley student Joel Lourie, D-Richland, released a statement by email, expressing sympathy for the student and her family.

“I have watched with horror the disturbing video from Spring Valley High School today,” Lourie said Monday. “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. I am confident that both the school district and the sheriff’s department will do a quick but thorough investigation to bring us all the facts and take the appropriate action necessary.”

Fields has been with the sheriff’s department since 2004, according to a media release. He joined the school resource officer program in 2008, and in 2014 he received the Richland School District 2 Culture of Excellence Award.

Fields serves as a school resource officer with the Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary School as well as Spring Valley High School, according to the release.

Deputy Fields is a son of Wayne Fields, the president and CEO of Columbia's Oliver Gospel Mission, Lott said. Oliver Gospel is a decades-old organization which serves some of the city's homeless population.

Online civil rights group has launched a petition calling for officer Ben Fields to be fired and prosecuted, and for charges to be dropped against students arrested in the incident. The petition has already received thousands of signatures.

According to the Center for Public Integrity, South Carolina’s rate of student “referrals to law enforcement” was not above the national state-by-state average. The state’s rate is 5 per 1,000, compared to about 6 per 1,000 nationally.

But the state’s numbers did show a pattern of disproportionate referrals of black students. Black students represented almost 36 percent of the state’s public school student body, but they were 50 percent of all students referred to law enforcement. Spring Valley High School reported no arrests or referrals that year. Schools are currently sending in data to the federal education department for an update not likely to be released until next year.

Blacks students referred to law enforcement

South Carolina has one of the nation's highest percentages of black students referred to law enforcement - police and courts, according to a study by the Center for Public Integrity. The study was based on an analysis of discipline and enrollment statistics from the 2011-12 U.S. Department of Education civil rights data:

1. Mississippi: 70.1%

2. Louisiana: 62.3%

3. Alabama: 56.1%

4. Georgia: 51.3%

5. Delaware: 50.6%

6. South Carolina: 49.5%

7. New York: 44%

8. Illinois: 38.5%

9. Virginia: 38.3%

10. North Carolina: 38.1%

U.S. average: 26.9%