Federal authorities announced a civil rights probe Tuesday into the circumstances surrounding the forceful dragging of a black female South Carolina student by a white deputy sheriff.
The officer involved in the incident — identified as Senior Deputy Ben Fields — is on leave after a video posted on social media appeared to show him flip the student backward while she was seated at her desk and pull her along the floor of a classroom at Spring Valley High School.
The FBI and the Justice Department opened a civil rights probe of the arrest to determine if federal law was broken, the agencies said in a statement Tuesday.
Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott sought the independent investigations of the incident, which comes amid heightened scrutiny of the use of force by U.S. police, particularly against minorities.
“It’s very disturbing what happened today. It’s something I have to deal with, and that’s what we’re going to be doing,” Lott said by telephone Monday.
No one was seriously hurt in Monday’s encounter, which officials said occurred after the student refused Fields’ order to leave the classroom for being disruptive. Several students captured the incident on their cellphones and posted videos of it online, and the incident has sparked outrage on social media.
One of the videos shows Fields asking the girl to stand up. She remains seated, and he wraps a forearm around her neck. He then tips the desk backward until she falls onto the floor. He then drags her several feet to the front of the classroom, where he orders her to put her hands behind her back and applies handcuffs.
The girl does not appear to resist or argue with the officer during the short video. She has been charged with disturbing school and was released to her parents. Another female student in the class was also charged in the incident. Neither girl has been identified by authorities.
In a longer video recorded in the classroom, Fields can be heard telling another student who was expressing dismay over the situation, “Hey, I'll put you in jail next.”
It emerged Tuesday that Fields was previously sued and accused of using excessive force and targeting black people.
In 2013 a student expelled from Spring Valley High School accused Fields, who is white, of targeting black students and saying the expelled student was a gang member. That case is set to go to trial in January.
In 2010, federal court records show, a jury sided with Fields after a black couple accused him of excessive force and battery during a 2005 noise complaint arrest in Columbia.
School administrators expressed dismay over Monday’s incident.
“Our district is deeply concerned about an incident that occurred at Spring Valley High School today,” Debbie Hamm, the superintendent of Richland’s School District Two, said in a statement Monday. “Student safety is and always will be the district’s top priority … The district will not tolerate any actions that jeopardize the safety of our students.”
Richland District Two School Board Chairman Jim Manning also issued a statement about the confrontation. “I have watched the video several times, and there is no doubt that the video is extremely disturbing. The amount of force used on a female student by a male officer appears to me to be excessive and unnecessary,” he said.
The images captured an “egregious use of force” against the student, ACLU of South Carolina Executive Director Victoria Middleton said.
South Carolina has seen controversy over race and police violence this year, including the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer.
The incident comes amid heightened national scrutiny of the use of force by police, particularly against minorities.
Al Jazeera and wire services