Arrest of SC Student Triggers Civil Rights Investigation

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A civil rights probe is now underway, following the arrest of a South Carolina student and the subsequent firing of the sheriff’s deputy who made the arrest. Outrage over the treatment of the student, depicted in numerous videos, has once again raised the question of whether minority students receive the same treatment as others.

The altercation began when the young woman was chided by her math teacher for using her phone during class. The student was asked to turn over the phone to the teacher, which she refused to do. The teacher called in an administrator and both adults tried to get the woman to rise from her chair and leave the classroom.

Sheriff’s deputy called in

When the student refused to leave her desk, the sheriff’s deputy and school resource officer (SRO), Ben Fields, was called into the classroom. Fields also asked the girl repeatedly to get up and leave the classroom. When the girl refused, Fields flipped the student backward out of her desk, handcuffed her and removed her forcibly. More than one student filmed the altercation as it occurred, video that has since been posted on multiple media channels to illustrate the violence of the arrest.

At the same time he was arresting this student, Fields arrested a second student that was vocally protesting the deputy’s treatment of the first girl. Both girls were taken out in handcuffs in front of the rest of the students in the class.

After the incident, Fields was placed on unpaid leave by his supervisor, Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County. Lott also called for a federal investigation of the arrest, to be conducted by the FBI, the U.S. attorney for South Carolina and the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. Three days after being placed on leave, Deputy Fields was fired by Lott.

Racial discrimination a factor?

While some have cried racial discrimination in this case, Sheriff Lott has cautioned there is no indication at this time race played a role. He also told media that it would not be a factor in the investigation of the case, telling the Chicago Tribune, “It really doesn’t matter to me whether that child had been purple.” However, national statistics do suggest that race could be an issue in school discipline cases, with federal data showing minority students are more than twice as likely to be arrested in school as white students.

The case also raises larger questions about the fact that more police officers are working inside of schools today. In 1994, Congress passed the Guns-Free School Act, prohibiting weapons in schools. However, some states have extended the penalties associated with that law to other violations, including general misbehavior.

In South Carolina, a “disturbing schools” statute was passed, making it illegal for students “to interfere with or disturb in any way or in any place the students or teachers of the school.” Since its passage, the disturbing schools statute has been one of the top reasons for referrals in South Carolina schools, trailing only simple assault and shoplifting.

South Carolina Representative Joe Neal (D) told Reuters he believes the law is “vague and subjective,” and wants to add an amendment so that activities that are not considered criminal cannot be included under the law. There is no word at this time as to whether legal action will be taken by the family of the student to hold the school or Fields accountable for the incident.

The Jeffcoat Firm advocates on behalf of children and teens who have been the victim of discrimination, harassment or violence in a school setting. We offer free case evaluations and can outline your legal options and whether litigation is warranted. Call (803) 200-2000 to set up a confidential legal consultation today.

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