The attorney for a Columbia high school student whose arrest by a school resource officer went viral this week says the officer should be facing criminal charges for his actions.
Former deputy Ben Fields was fired Wednesday after Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said Fields did not follow proper procedures when he forcibly pulled the uncooperative student from her chair and flung her towards the door. The incident was filmed by other students in the class.
The student’s attorney Todd Rutherford said terminating Fields is not enough. “I believe that the officer’s actions are certainly egregious enough that they warrant his arrest,” he told South Carolina Radio Network. “I’m disappointed in the sheriff. The sheriff took 48 hours to decide to simply fire the officer. I’m just wondering what case he was looking at, since the rest of the world is outraged.”
Rutherford is also a state legislator who is the highest-ranking Democrat in the South Carolina House of Representatives.
Fields’ attorney has defended the officer’s actions that morning. “We believe that Mr. Fields’ actions were justified and lawful throughout the circumstances of which he was confronted during this incident,” the attorney Scott Hayes wrote. “To that extent, we believe that Mr. Fields’ actions were carried out professionally and that he was performing his job duties within the legal threshold.”
Lott has deferred any potential charges to the FBI and Justice Department, which are investigating to see if Fields violated the student’s civil rights. The sheriff defended the deputy’s right to use force on a student who was refusing to leave class, but said Fields went too far in how he removed the 16-year-old from her desk.
Rutherford said the sheriff’s department and Spring Valley High School also share responsibility for what happened, given previous complaints by parents against Fields. A lawsuit alleging excessive force was filed against Fields in 2005, but a jury eventually sided with the deputy. Lott said Richland County School District Two never told him of any complaints that school leaders may have had with their SRO.
“I’m not acting as if it’s okay for someone to ignore a police officer and ignore a teacher,” Rutherford continued. “What I am saying is nothing deserves that kind of conduct.”
The student (who South Carolina Radio Network is not identifying at this time, due to her age) was charged with disrupting school, which carries a maximum 90 day sentence or $1,000 fine if convicted.
Rutherford also represents 18-year-old Niya Kenny, a second student in the class who confronted Fields about the first arrest. Deputies have said she was also disruptive with her actions and language. The attorney defended her actions. “I don’t understand how a student who is simply trying to protect another student from a person who is a sworn law enforcement officer now becomes a criminal.”
Rutherford said Kenny told him that Fields made a veiled threat, asking “Do you want some of this, too?”
Sheriff Lott said he intends to move forward with cases against both students. ““What Deputy Fields did doesn’t excuse them for what they did,” Lott told reporters on Wednesday. “To me, that’s two separate things. He did a wrong, they did a wrong also. He’s been held accountable for his wrong. They should be held accountable for their wrong, also.”