Crime & Courts

Accountability, race, excessive use of force all topics at the Richland 2 board meeting

State NAACP director Lonnie Randolph speaks at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Richland School District 2 board.
State NAACP director Lonnie Randolph speaks at Tuesday night’s meeting of the Richland School District 2 board. sellis@thestate.com

Race and responsibility were the overwhelmingly repetitive themes at Tuesday night’s Richland 2 school board meeting, where more than a dozen parents, educators and others spoke emotionally about Monday’s conflict involving a school resource officer and a student at Spring Valley High School.

“Excessive use of force is never acceptable and is always criminal,” said James Flowers, who identified himself as a law enforcement officer of more than 20 years and a criminal justice academy trainer. “Please stop blaming victims when they are the victim of excessive force.”

Cell phone videos recorded inside a Spring Valley math class emerged Monday evening showing Richland County Sheriff’s deputy Ben Fields, a school resource officer and an assistant football coach at the school, violently pulling a female student from her desk and onto the floor. The student reportedly was asked numerous times to leave the classroom following a discipline issue before Fields entered the situation.

“If I hear one more person say that it is the responsibility of this girl to not get body slammed, it’s going to kill me,” Flowers said, met by applause from the audience.

The incident has garnered national attention and discussions about race relations and police presence in schools.

Officer Fields is white; the student is black.

The student in the video and another were arrested for disturbing the peace, while Fields has been placed on administrative duties and requested by school district officials to be permanently banned from all Richland 2 campuses.

Speakers at Tuesday night’s meeting were split in their opinions of whether the Monday’s incident likely was racially motivated.

“This is not a race issue. This is ‘I want to be defiant and not do what I’m told,’” said Rebekah Woodford, a parent of two Spring Valley graduates and a current Spring Valley student. “That child chose the course of action at hand.”

Kyle Lacio argued otherwise.

“If anybody thinks that a white female would have been treated the same way, then I think you live in a different world than me,” Lacio said.

Earlier Tuesday, Richland 2 officials held a news conference at which Helen Grant, the district’s recently hired chief diversity and multicultural inclusion officer, said that while the officer and the student involved in the incident were of different races, she does not believe the actions shown in the video to have been racially motivated.

More than one person at Tuesday’s board meeting questioned Fields’ background as an officer, citing reported incidents, word-of-mouth anecdotes and personal experiences of the officer acting harshly toward both students and parents.

“A lot of kids say this is not his first time doing it,” said Angela Bookert, a Spring Valley parent. “They have seen him do it. A lot of them are too scared to talk, too scared to address the issue.”

Dianeka Bryan, though, defended Fields’ character.

“I know I’m not going to be very popular right now,” said Bryan, a mother of three Spring Valley graduates. “All three of my children have been supported by this particular officer. ... I do agree that what happened in this situation was very excessive and there was excessive force.”

But, she said, “there is accountability on both parts.”

“The national media wants us to focus on the officer,” Bryan said. “But we also need to focus on our children as well.”

Reach Ellis at (803) 771-8307.

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