A South Carolina sheriff's deputy seen hurling a student to the ground and then dragging her across the floor in a widely viewed video has been fired, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Wednesday. Deputy Ben Fields had been on administrative leave since the Monday incident.
"Deputy Ben Fields did wrong Monday," Lott said, adding that Fields had been terminated from the department roughly 20 minutes before the noon press announcement. The department's investigation into Fields' conduct was complete in just 48 hours.
But even as he announced Fields' firing, Lott appeared to defend the deputy's actions and shift at least some of the blame for the encounter to the student, whom he described as "very disruptive and very disrespectful."
"We must not lose sight that the whole incident was started by this student," he said.
The violent classroom arrest at Spring Valley High School in Columbia prompted a local investigation from the sheriff's department, the state's attorney's office as well as a federal probe into whether Fields, who is white, violated the civil rights of the 16-year-old student, who is black.
Fields' behavior was swiftly condemned by everyone from school officials to presidential candidates. Richland School District 2 Superintendent Debbie Hamm on Tuesday called Fields' actions "outrageous and unforgivable."
Students filmed the encounter in the classroom, and the videos went viral. On Tuesday, Lott called the footage "disturbing," but denied race was a factor because Fields "has been dating an African-American woman for quite some time." On Wednesday, he said he welcomed "people to video us doing our job."
"As in any incident, videos are very useful to us. We’re glad that students took the videos," Lott said. But he cautioned that videos are just a snapshot and "don’t tell the complete picture."
Fields arrested the teen girl after she reportedly ignored her teacher's order to put away her cell phone. The aggressive discipline is just one example of the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon, in which black children are more likely to be criminalized for their behavior than their white peers.
Lott said his department was solely investigating whether Fields broke department policy, and that he reached out to other authorities to handle the broader criminal and civil rights investigations.
"I don’t feel proper procedures were used at this point," Lott said. "The maneuver he used was not based on training, or acceptable."
The 16-year-old student and one of her peers in the class were both charged with disturbing the schools, USA Today reports. Lott said Wednesday that he understood the charges against the students have not been dropped.
Fields, who joined the sheriff's office in 2004 and became a school resource officer in 2008, has been sued twice before over his conduct. A jury ruled in Fields' favor in a 2007 excessive force suit, and the deputy is awaiting trial on the second suit over a student's alleged wrongful expulsion.
When asked if Fields felt sorry for the incident, Lott said he didn't "know if the word is remorse. He tried to do his job, and that's what he feels like he did."
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