South Carolina Incident of a Black Child Attacked by Officer Deepens Concern about Use of Force and Race


There is overwhelming evidence that poor and minority children have increasingly become targets of unfair policing and aggression in communities, schools, and the criminal justice system over the last 30 years. EJI has documented a presumption of guilt and dangerousness that burdens many children of color and has unfairly resulted in abusive conduct. In most states, Black and Latino students are disproportionately referred to law enforcement.

In the South, Black students are disproportionately suspended and expelled from public schools, and a recent study showed that in South Carolina, Black students made up 36 percent of the population but accounted for 60 percent of suspensions.

The latest example occurred this week in Columbia, South Carolina, where a white sheriff’s deputy in a classroom grabbed an African American girl by the neck, flipped her backward as she sat at her desk, then dragged and threw her across the floor.

Witnesses and law enforcement officials said deputy Ben Fields was called to an Algebra I class on Monday morning after the student would not stop using her cellphone. When she would not leave the classroom with Fields, he forced her from her desk by flipping it before he pulled and threw her toward the front of the room.

Fields was one of two school resource officers assigned to Spring Valley High School, where the student body is about 52 percent Black and 30 percent white. He was dismissed two days after the episode for failing to use “proper technique” when, as Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County said at a news conference, “He picked a student up, and he threw the student across the room.”

The girl, a sophomore, was arrested on a charge of disturbing the school, and Sheriff Lott said he expected she would still face prosecution. Other students familiar with her told reporters this week that she is generally quiet and not a troublemaker. It was widely reported that the girl recently lost her mother and grandmother and had been placed in foster care. On Wednesday, a lawyer representing the girl said her arm was in a cast, and she had suffered neck and back injuries.

The Justice Department is conducting a civil rights investigation that could lead to criminal charges against Fields, who is the subject of at least two previous misconduct suits. One of the cases was decided in his favor; in the other case, he is charged in a federal civil rights lawsuit, filed in November 2013 by a former Spring Valley student, with “unfairly and recklessly target[ing] African American students with allegations of gang membership and criminal gang activity.” That case is pending trial.

Black children in the South are particularly burdened by our nation’s history of racial injustice. The myth of Black people’s racial inferiority developed and persisted as a justification for slavery in America, and it did not end with slavery. Instead, the myth of racial inferiority evolved into a presumption of guilt and dangerousness that has been used to justify segregation, resistance to civil rights, and mass incarceration. One legacy of this history is that children of color continue to be presumed dangerous by teachers, administrators, and police officers, and targeted for suspensions, expulsions, arrests, and violence that is grossly disproportionate to their behavior.

EJI believes a more informed understanding of our racial history and the challenges it creates is vital to developing a healthier and more respectful local, state, and national identity. Learn more here.