By Gabriella Shery ’17
With her pride bruised and her body dragged, a young 16 year old female student was aggressively taken out of her chair by a school resource officer on October 26. This was all captured on video at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina. The video has not only attracted immense attention from the media, but also from the school district’s Black Parent’s Association and the American Civil Liberties Union of South Carolina. This horrific incident lays bare the unfair punishment of black students and delineates that the safety of students is on the periphery of unimportance.
This all began when the female high school student refused to give her phone up after texting in math class. After resisting incessant warnings to leave her seat and go to the discipline office, Deputy Ben Fields flipped her and her desk backward onto the floor. Her arm now requires a cast, and she now has both cuts and bruises on her face. School district superintendent, Debbie Hamm, said that “student safety is and always will be the District’s top priority… the District will not tolerate any actions that jeopardize the safety of our students,” according to the article Video Shows South Carolina Officer Flipping Student from Desk by The Associated Press, Orlando Sentinel.
Ms. Jennifer Roman, dean and physical education teacher said, “The officer definitely went overboard. I think that the media blasted it as being a white cop and black victim but it’s not known whether or not it was just an unruly student.”
Hamzah Naeem ’17 added, “The officer should’ve approached her calmly. I feel that she was only reacting out of fear which led to him acting out drastically.” He went on to say that “there’s been so much tension between cops and African Americans lately that it could either be a hate crime or just a coincidence.”
One brave girl, Niya Kenny, overcame the mayhem and stood up for her classmate by filming the incident. Kenny was taken into custody and held on $1,000 bail. Still in disbelief, Kenny said “That’s supposed to be somebody that’s going to protect us. Not somebody that we need to be scared of,” according to the article Witness to Rough South Carolina High School Arrest: I Couldn’t Believe what was Happening by Justin Moyer, Washington Post.
Kelly Wong ’17 added, “Since she was charged, the police department is basically saying that it’s okay for a person to be be manhandled and abused just because of a badge and uniform. She was brave to stand up for what she believed was right, that’s something that should be encouraged more.”
Ms. Roman has dealt with many incidents involving students who refused to give up their cellphones, but they never ended as gruesomely as Officer Field’s case had. In the past, students had the option of surrendering their phones or getting a 5 day suspension. To her surprise, many chose to be suspended. Now, if a student refuses to give up their phone, their parents will be contacted.
Officer Fields has a praised past, and has been commended for his work in schools. As a school resource officer in 2014, he was presented a Culture of Excellence Award in a Richland County elementary school. On the other hand, he has also been affiliated in two lawsuits in less than a decade. Similar to his most recent case, Fields was accused of using excessive force in a 2007 lawsuit. His second case is scheduled to go to trial this upcoming January.
Emma Hone ’16 was not surprised by his jaded past and said, “I don’t think that he should’ve put his hands on her but he had to do something. There was clearly a lot of pent up anger so it’s likely he’s been taking it out on students.”
Fields abused his power as an officer by initiating violence against a teenage student. Although objectionable, race did play a role in this case. The young female student disobeyed directions to give up her phone, but that shouldn’t have led to her being dragged out of the classroom. He should have been more self-restrained as a person trained to defuse conflict. She is a teenage girl who was not threatening to her peers or Officer Fields. His behavior would’ve only been appropriate if she had a weapon and was threatening the safety of the classroom. If she were white, it would’ve been highly unlikely that she would’ve been as maltreated, and the teacher should have never called an officer to handle a non-violent student. The teacher should have spoken to the student to understand whether or not there was an underlying cause to her defiant behavior.
Not only is Field’s behavior under scrutiny but the girl’s as well, according to the “disturbing school” laws enacted in 1962. This law fines students $1,000 and results in up to 90 days in jail if students act in an obnoxious manner. This law is being criticized because it’s vague and doesn’t focus on criminal behavior solely. This law was used in the arrest of the 16-year-old student according to the article “Disturbing Schools” Law Criticized after South Carolina Student’s Arrest by Harriet McLeod, Reuters.
The opposing point of view would argue that as an authority figure, his voice supersedes all others. The teacher called in law enforcement for assistance because the student was asked to give up her phone and leave the classroom several times but declined to do so. The video caught the student resisting arrest and punching the officer. Thus, her refusal to follow direction made her arrest inevitable.
In a 2013 federal lawsuit, it was claimed that the officer “unfairly and recklessly targets African-American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity.” Some feel that race was a factor in Officer Field’s vehemence towards the situation. A witness said, “…to be thrown out of her seat as she was thrown…I don’t ever recall a female student who is not of color being treated this way…it doesn’t affect white students.” A South Carolina deputy attempted to obscure ideas of racism by bringing up the fact that Officer Ben Fields is romantically involved with a black woman.
Similarly, Polina Solovyeva ’17 believed that the student’s race influenced the way the officer acted towards her. “If she were a white person, this probably wouldn’t have happened.”
Officer Ben Fields is currently on unpaid leave due to his actions. Depending on the results of the investigation, it is probable that Ben James will not be permitted to return to any school in the district, with a video as evidence to the horror a teenage student endured. The District will not permit the safety of students to be jeopardized, and the officer’s trial will commence this January.