A former school resource officer at a Columbia-area high school has filed a defamation lawsuit against his former boss and school district after federal prosecutors said Friday there is “insufficient evidence” to charge him with civil rights violations.
Former Spring Valley High School SRO Ben Fields was fired from his job with the Richland County Sheriff’s Office in October 2015, after students posted cell phone video of him yanking an uncooperative student out of her desk, dragging her across the floor and tossing her towards a door. The student had been refusing to leave the classroom.
The U.S. Justice Department announced earlier Friday that it had closed its civil rights investigation of Fields. “After a careful and thorough investigation, the team of experienced federal prosecutors and FBI agents determined that the evidence was insufficient to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that Fields willfully deprived the Spring Valley High School student of a constitutional right,” the agency stated. “This decision is limited strictly to an application of the high legal standard required to prosecute the case under the federal civil rights statute; it does not reflect an assessment of any other aspect of the incident involving Fields and the Spring Valley High School student.”
South Carolina’s Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson had announced last year that his office also would not charge Fields. The solicitor’s office also dropped “disturbing schools” charges against the student involved and a second who was arrested for confronting the officer.
Federal officials and the FBI met Friday with the student’s family and their attorney to inform them of the decision. Hours later, Fields filed a defamation suit against the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, Sheriff Leon Lott and Richland County School District Two. In the suit, Fields argues his record has been “tarnished” and his reputation “ruined” due to the high-profile nature of the incident and his superiors’ portrayal of him. The lawsuit claims a department review of the incident found Fields was within sheriff’s department policy in his actions. Fields also claimed he was fired during a meeting with Lott after the sheriff told Fields he had “no choice.”
The Justice Department reviewed the sheriff’s department after the incident and recommended several changes to the SRO program, including annual training for officers on deescalation and bias-free policing. Proposed regulations by the state Department of Education will also emphasize that officers no longer be used for classroom discipline issues, unless it involves the danger of harm to another student.