AFRICANGLOBE – The South Carolina sheriff’s department whose deputy viciously attacked and body slammed a student across a classroom after she allegedly refused to give up her cellphone has signed an agreement with the U.S. Justice Department that settles a civil rights review.
The federal agency calls the settlement, effective Friday, part of its effort to stem the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
Meanwhile, the American Civil Liberties Union sued South Carolina in federal court on Thursday over what it calls the criminalization of normal adolescent misbehavior. The lawsuit challenges the state’s “disturbing schools” and “disorderly conduct” charges as unconstitutionally vague.
The DOJ agreement requires Richland County to provide intensive annual training for the deputies working in more than 60 schools on how to de-escalate situations, avoid bias and interact properly with disabled students.
It also requires the creation of an advisory group including students and parents, which must issue initial recommendations by Nov. 1, and the hiring of an outside consultants approved by the DOJ to assist with compliance.
The agreement settles a civil rights review that began in May 2015, five months before the deputy’s assault of the 16-year-old girl was recorded on a video that went viral. That review was partly due to complaints and arrest patterns, according to a DOJ letter to Sheriff Leon Lott dated Wednesday.
Critics have accused Fields, who is white, of racial bias. Local officials had said at the time that teachers and administrators and even at least one fellow student have publicly said they support Fields’ actions. He had been a school resource officer at Spring Valley High School for seven years, and many there voiced support for him, Lott said.
Lott has called a news conference Thursday afternoon to address the agreement, which ends the review before its completion.
The DOJ agreement says officers should focus on criminal conduct, and that their “duties shall not include involvement in classroom management or school discipline matters that should be appropriately handled by school staff.”
That echoes rules the state Board of Education initially approved Tuesday aimed at keeping school officers from being involved in ordinary student discipline. As well as responding to crimes, it says school officers should keep out intruders, act as positive role models, pair with teachers for law-related lessons and train school personnel on handling crisis situations.
A separate DOJ investigation into the assault by the deputy on the student at Spring Valley High has not been resolved by this agreement.
Last October, school officials called Deputy Ben Fields to intervene after the teenager allegedly refused to surrender her cellphone and wouldn’t leave the classroom when told by a teacher and administrator. She again allegedly refused to leave, and Fields told her she was under arrest.
Two classmates recorded videos showing Fields flipping the teen out of her chair and tossing her across the room, sparked national outrage. One was recorded by Niya Kenny, an 18-year-old who also verbally challenged the officer, declaring that what he was doing was wrong. She was arrested as well, and like the juvenile girl, was falsely charged with “disturbing schools.”
The officer was swiftly fired, but ten months later, Kenny still faces the misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail or a $1,000 fine. She is now a plaintiff in the ACLU suit.
The ACLU wants the courts to stop the state from charging students in kindergarten through 12th grade with these two crimes, and asks that any prior convictions not be used in considering any future consequences – as if they’re expunged.
According to the ACLU, about 1,750 students were referred to the Department of Juvenile Justice in 2014-15 for disturbing schools; 71 percent were Black. That doesn’t include students older than 17 who were charged as an adult – the ACLU didn’t have those figures.
“These types of adolescent behavior should never be met with arrest,” said ACLU attorney Sarah Hinger.
A criminal charge in school dramatically reduces a student’s likelihood of graduating and steers them toward “ongoing involvement with the criminal justice system,” Hinger said.
The attorney general’s office declined to comment on pending litigation.