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South Carolina video thrusts city into a race debate

Federal probes promised; deputy is on unpaid leave

Images from a student’s video show a deputy’s treatment of a 16-year-old who refused to leave a classroom.Associated Press

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Videos of a white police officer throwing a black high school girl to the floor of a classroom thrust this city into an unsettling national discussion Tuesday about whether black students are disproportionately punished.

The incident, which the Justice Department said it would investigate, follows national studies showing that black students were far more likely than whites to be disciplined in public schools, even for comparable offenses. That issue was getting intense scrutiny here long before the videos of Monday's incident were released, prompting the school district to form a task force last year to examine its practices.

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Last year, the racial divide in Richland School District Two, encompassing parts of Columbia and its suburbs, led to formation of the Black Parents Association and contributed to a bitter campaign for control of the district's board.

Yet this community fits no neat stereotype of racial tension. It has at times been seen as a model of amicable integration. And while some students have called the deputy overly rough or racist, others, of all races, defend his record in the school — if not his behavior on the videos.

The videos showed a deputy assigned to Spring Valley High School struggling with a 16-year-old who had refused to leave her math class after the teacher reportedly caught her using her phone. The deputy, Ben Fields, tipped the girl's chair and desk backward, lifting her out of her seat and slamming her to the floor, and then dragged her to the front of the classroom, where he cuffed her hands behind her back.

Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County said that in one video, when the deputy grabbed the girl, she could be seen punching him, but he said his focus was on whether the deputy followed departmental rules. "That's what the internal affairs investigation is doing, and the results of that will determine his further employment here," he said.

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"Even though she was wrong for disturbing the class, even though she refused to abide by the directions of the teacher, the school administrator and also the verbal commands of our deputy, I'm looking at what our deputy did."

He deflected a question about the role of race, saying Fields has a black girlfriend.

On Monday, the sheriff placed Fields on unpaid leave, and asked for a federal investigation. The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, the FBI, and the US attorney for South Carolina will look into the episode.

James Manning, chairman of the district's board, said the use of force "appears to me to be excessive and unnecessary."

Fields has been the subject of two federal lawsuits about his conduct in the past. A jury found in his favor in one, and the other is pending.

In Richland Two, where 59 percent of students are black and 26 percent are white, 77 percent of those suspended at least once in 2011-12 were black, according to figures compiled by the Justice Department, though details to allow a comparison of the offenses involved were not readily available. And South Carolina, including Richland, relies much more on suspension than the nation as a whole; 24 percent of public school students in the state were suspended at least once that year, compared with 13 percent nationwide.

Black parents have complained that school discipline is arbitrary and disproportionately affects black students, said Stephen Gilchrist, a founder of Richland Two Black Parents Association. The group was formed in early 2014 to address such concerns.

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This year, the district's task force on student misconduct recommended the adoption of policies specifying "a consistent set of consequences for infractions at each level."

James T. McLawhorn Jr., chief executive of the Columbia Urban League and a member of the task force, said that over the last generation, as schools gradually shifted away from being mostly white, residents failed to grasp how the approach to discipline was also changing. But he cautioned against drawing broad negative conclusions from Monday's incident.

When the altercation occurred, students stood up, confused about what was happening, but the deputy told them, "sit down, or you all will be next," said one student, Charles Scarborough, 16.

Adding to the confusion, several students said, was that the girl was usually quiet and not a troublemaker.