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US Officer Fired for Tossing Teen, Questions Remain

In this image taken from video, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott speaks during a news conference regarding Deputy Ben Fields in Columbia, S.C., October 28, 2015.
In this image taken from video, Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott speaks during a news conference regarding Deputy Ben Fields in Columbia, S.C., October 28, 2015.

A South Carolina sheriff says he acted swiftly but carefully in firing a school resource officer caught on video flipping a disruptive student out of her desk and tossing her across the floor. In the wake of the firing, though, questions remain about whether the officer should have been in the classroom in the first place, and where the former deputy goes from here.

The Spring Valley High School student refused to leave the classroom Monday despite being told by a teacher and an administrator to do so, according to Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said. That's when Senior Deputy Ben Fields was brought in to remove her. She again refused, and Fields told her she was under arrest.

Video shows the deputy flipping the teen backward and then throwing her across the room. At that point, Lott said Wednesday, Fields did not use proper procedure.

"Police officers make mistakes too. They're human and they need to be held accountable, and that's what we've done with Deputy Ben Fields," Lott said.

Outrage spread quickly after videos of the white officer arresting the black teenager appeared on the Internet. One question is if Fields should have been involved in the situation at all, or whether it was a situation that should have been handled by school officials.

"We know important work is ahead of us as we thoughtfully and carefully review the decision-making process that may lead to a school resource officer taking the lead in handling a student disruption," Richland 2 Superintendent Debbie Hamm said in a statement.

It's up to school teachers and administrators to deal with disciplinary issues, and a memorandum of agreement delineates the circumstances under which it's OK for officers to get involved. The school district and sheriff's department have yet to provide that document after repeated requests.

Lott said Wednesday that both the teacher and vice principal in the classroom at the time told deputies they supported Fields' actions.

An attorney for Fields, Scott Hayes, said in a statement that the deputy's actions were justified and lawful.

Fields' was fired and banned from Richland 2 District properties. Federal and state investigations into his actions have just begun, so it will be unknown for some time if he will face charges.

The sheriff also had stern words for the student who he said started the confrontation by refusing to hand over her cellphone after her math teacher saw her texting in class — a violation of school policy.

Both she and another student who verbally challenged the officer's actions during the arrest still face misdemeanor charges of disturbing schools, punishable by up to a $1,000 fine or 90 days in jail, Lott said, although in most cases, judges impose alternative sentences that keep students out of jail.

"The student was not allowing the teacher to teach and not allowing the students to learn. She was very disrespectful and she started this whole incident," Lott said.

Lott declined to release Fields' personnel file, but said none of the complaints filed against him came from the school district. He did say that he and other deputies were trained not to throw or push subjects away unless they are in danger.

An expelled student has claimed Fields targeted blacks and falsely accused him of being a gang member in 2013, court records show. That case goes to trial in January.

The girl in the videos remains unidentified, but she has obtained a prominent attorney — Todd Rutherford, who also serves as House minority leader in South Carolina's legislature — who contradicted the sheriff's claim Tuesday that the girl "may have had a rug burn" but was otherwise uninjured.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Rutherford said his client has a hard cast on her arm and complains of neck and back injuries as well as psychological trauma.

Rutherford said he doesn't know if race played a factor.

"I'm positive what he did to her should not be done to any human being," he said. "It should not be done to any animal. If he was on video and a dog bit him, and he threw a dog across the room, he'd still go to jail."