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'Terrorism in the classroom'

By Brian E. Muhammad -Contributing Writer- | Last updated: Nov 3, 2015 - 9:26:49 PM

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Spring Valley High School Senior Deputy Ben Fields tries to forcibly remove a student who refused to leave her high school math class, in Columbia, S.C. The Justice Department opened a civil rights investigation Oct. 29 after Fields flipped the student backward in her desk and tossed her across the floor. Photo: MGN Online

Activists demand deputy face charges for body slamming female student and call for an end to targeting of Black girls

COLUMBIA, S.C. ( - Disdain nationwide and protests in South Carolina were growing in the aftermath of viral video capturing a Black high school girl brutally slammed to the floor and dragged across a classroom by a White deputy sheriff.

Demonstrators stand in front of the State Capitol building in Columbia, S.C. protesting the violent attack by deputy sheriff Ben Fields on a 15 year old high school girl that was captured on cell phone video and went viral. Photo: Andrea Muhammad
Protestors outside the state Capitol building Oct. 31 called for the prosecution of Ben Fields, the now-fired White deputy who was assigned to Spring Valley High School as a school resource officer. Organizers presented a list of demands that was delivered to the door of the Richland County Sheriff office. The coalition included students, parents, residents along with Black Lives Matter and Black Girls Lives Matter. The coalition wants charges dropped against the sophomore girl and a classmate who objected to how the girl was treated and the classroom teacher, disciplinary administrator, and school principal fired.

The group wants an end to police officers in schools, more counselors, a repeal of zero tolerance laws and regulations and implementation of restorative justice and conflict resolution training for students and staff.

“As for our young queens and princesses, we as Black men, Black kings, Black gods, we have to start protecting them. They are tired of getting beat down and us men just standing by with video cameras ready to put it on WorldStar and YouTube, FaceBook. We got to stand our ground,” said activist Shango Osoosi.

“We’re definitely looking for some justice and for the officer to be charged. He should’ve been fired on day one and charged with aggravated assault or child endangerment,” said Mark Groggins, a spoken word artist who attended the rally at the state house with his son.

Photo: Haroon Rajaee

“This one just happened to get caught on video and the students released it,” said activist and school teacher James Muhammad, who came in from Jacksonville, Fla.

“I am totally outraged, upset … disappointed and I expect that we would move forward in prosecuting the school resource officer,” said Dr. Monica Elkins-Johnson, an educator and Richland County Two school board member. She echoed the sentiments of protestors.

Ms. Elkins-Johnson, who spoke to The Final Call via telephone from an education conference in California, wants “a formal charge” filed against Mr. Fields, who video showed slamming the sophomore girl to the floor. 

“When a teacher or a parent hits a child they would be arrested; if a boyfriend or a husband hits someone, it will be called domestic violence—so what do we do when a school resource officer brutally attacks a young lady because she refused to move out of her seat?” asked Dr. Elkins-Johnson.

“This is not an isolated incident nor is this an incident that can go away because of the sanctions and punishment received by the violating officer,” added Jaribu Hill, an activist, attorney based in Jackson, Mississippi.

Attorney Hill said the swift termination of the deputy could be reasonably attributed to fear of activism and protests seen nationwide against injustices in places like Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore.  

Firing the deputy is not enough, said Carl Muhammad, Nation of Islam student minister in Columbia and representative for the state of South Carolina.

Although deputy sheriff Ben Fields was fired, many activists argue that is not enough and that charges should be filed. The Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigations are looking into the case. Photos: Andrea Muhammad

Police and the White community at large needs to understand the negative cumulative effect of White supremacy on race relations, he said. Mr. Muhammad and Muslims participated in the state house rally and the Fruit of Islam stood in silent protest outside in front of Spring Valley High School to show support for the girl injured Oct. 26 and teenager Niya Kenny, who was suspended and criminally charged for standing up to the actions of Ofc. Fields.

He wants all charges against the girl and Ms. Kenny dismissed.

The Columbia School Board said the actions of the former officer are under review by the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Support, however, was expressed for Ofc. Fields as about 100 students walked out of class in an Oct. 30 show of support captured by cell phone video. None of the students were disciplined.

In the viral video, Ofc. Fields manhandles the slight 15-year-old as Black school personnel watch. He arrested the girl and Niya Kenny. Both were charged with “disturbing schools,” a controversial South Carolina law many say has a history of abuse with students referred to cops and courts for minor school infractions.

Wesley Browning, a senior at the high school, defended Mr. Fields, who also coached football. “In my opinion, he’s a great guy, a great coach. He taught me discipline; he taught me many things that you need in life to succeed. As far as what happened, I feel like it could’ve been avoided. He should have never even been there. I felt like the administrators could’ve took care of it before it even got to that point.”

“The incident was that she resisted arrest. If you watch the videos, there’s four different ones, she punched Ofc. Fields repeatedly. So there was a certain point that she could’ve got up out of her chair. She didn’t have to resist multiple times with multiple administrators, even up to Ofc. Fields. If she had just gotten up, it could’ve been handled,” he argued. “At that point it was distracting school so it calls for her being expelled or whatever discipline that school needs to take. As far as the laws that she broke, it was resisting arrest and assaulting an officer.”

Black women and girls stand in solidarity at demonstration for a 15-year-old Black female student who was slammed to the floor by a sheriff's deputy at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, S.C. Protesters want the charges against the girl and another Black female student who was standing up to the actions of the deputy, dropped.

Thomas Brandon, another senior, added, “I guess, yeah it was, the use of force is controversial. That’s just all in the officer’s point of view what he needed to do. I think what he did was right and it could’ve been avoided if she just complied. Right now in our society, I feel like people aren’t listening to authority and that’s where differences in opinion come in.”

Daryius Godbolt, a sophomore at Spring Valley High School, had a much different take. He is Black and the two seniors are White, though some Black students participated in the walk out in support of Ofc. Fields.

“I’m actually close friends with the student. It’s really sad. I talk to her night to night trying to keep her head up real high,” he said. “She fractured her arm actually. I’ve seen it, we video chat. Where I’m from, in, that phone situation, they call your parent immediately. They don’t bring no law inside because we know how that gets. Look at the incidents that happened before, all this year,” said young Goodlet, who moved to South Carolina from Cleveland.

“This is a school. She’s a child and you’re an adult. Though he says he went by the book, that’s a child. You’ve got to think about if that was your own child. Is the environment heavy-handed like that with the young people over situations like the phone? Not at all. I’ve only been here for a month and it’s actually real positive. I actually want to go in the law enforcement field. I do. Every time a situation like this occurs, I’ll say what I could’ve did. If it was me, I would’ve handled it more lightly ’cause, at the end of the day, I have to think what if that was my sister, my younger cousin.”

Young girl showing support at rally
A South Carolina Department of Juvenile Justice report card for 2014 ranked “disturbing schools” law as the third most commonly used in the state to send youth to jail. In South Carolina there are 87 school resource officers under the authority of sheriff departments. 

Richland County Sherriff Leon Lott fired the deputy, saying his actions were wrong and violated department training and procedures.

In an Oct. 27 district school board meeting parents and community members voiced their concerns. Strong condemnation of the board came from some residents who said blamed board members, citing previous incidents with Ofc. Fields and what they called problems with his demeanor.

Steven Gilchrist, who teleconferenced with 5,700 parents representing the Richland 2 Black Parents Association, said “Blacks are tired” of abuses and rebuffed claims the alleged assault wasn’t racial. Mr. Gilchrest said his son, a student at Spring Valley, told him, “Dad no White child would have been removed … in that manner.”

Others were upset saying a Black teacher and a Black principal stood by while the student was violently extracted without any real provocation.

State Rep. Mia McLeod, a Democrat, agreed that if the girl were White things would have been different.

“It just highlights a whole lot of issues that need to be addressed about what happens at our schools to our kids, that we would otherwise not be aware of had this not happened,” she said. Spring Valley “shines a lot of light on what is being allowed when it comes to classroom discipline versus criminal behavior,” said Rep. McLeod.

There is no justification for the violence witnessed on the video, she stressed.

Criminalizing Black girls

The South Carolina incident put the spotlight on how Black girls are disproportionally targeted and disciplined in school.

A 2015 Smith and Harper report from the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education at the University of Pennsylvania looked at the disproportionate impact of K-12 school suspension and expulsion of Black students in Southern states. It found, “Black girls were severely and most disproportionately affected by school discipline policies and practices. Nationally, Blacks were 45 percent of girls suspended and 42 percent of girls expelled from K-12 public schools, which was highest among all racial/ethnic groups. Across the Southern states, Black girls comprised 56 percent of suspensions and 45 percent of expulsions, both of which were also highest among all girls.”

In 10 Southern states, Black students were the students most often suspended.

Carl Muhammad, Nation of Islam Representative in Columbia addresses demonstrators. Photos: Andrea Muhammad
An institutional, not individual problem?

“Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Over Policed, and Under Protected,” a 2015 report, found a “knowledge desert” exists around the lives and experiences of Black women and girls. According to the report, Black girls are the fastest growing population in the juvenile justice system with sentences that tended to be more severe than any other ethnic group of girls. The report also found Black girls were disciplined at rates about six times higher than White girls. Black girls made up about 28 percent of school females and 61 percent of girls disciplined. White girls made 15 percent of female students and 5 percent of the girls disciplined. Black girls were also suspended at a little more than six times higher than White girls, the study added.

Community protests actions by sheriff deputy in Columbia.

Another study found increased levels of law enforcement and security personnel in schools sometimes made girls feel less safe and less likely to attend school. The report found punitive measures were used instead of counseling or other conflict resolution strategies, which facilitated pushing Black girls into the juvenile justice system.

“So when you see a situation like what … happened in South Carolina; yes it was a vicious attack, yes it was abuse of authority—but it was right there on the spot, a devaluation of Black life,” said Atty. Hill, who runs the Mississippi Workers Center and is a human rights advocate.

Negative conditions by design?

“We publish and pore over high school graduation rates, and puzzle over ways to increase test scores. In these conversations, though, we often leave out an important part of the problem: actions taken by schools that actively hurt students and make it harder for them to succeed,” wrote Congressman Cedric Richmond of Louisiana in the Smith-Harper report. He called for “better training (for) teachers and administrators so that they have the tools to deescalate and mitigate situations.”

There must be a better guidance to schools on best practices so that student discipline is handled fairly instead of through arbitrary and heavy-handed zero tolerance policies, he said. Administrators, police, and judges need to prioritize rehabilitation and school attendance over severe punishments, the lawmaker added.

Black girls are disproportionately disciplined, suspended and expelled from U.S. schools compared to their White counterparts
In his book “Torchlight for America,” the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan writes the time of White Supremacy and Black inferiority is over. This is why it appears that an organized effort is underway to destroy Black youth. “Notice how the police and the judicial system do not treat our youth as children,” he wrote.

“It appears that there is a genocidal plan against Black people. The desire of many of those in power is the maintenance of White Supremacy. Whites and their institutions have created inferior-minded Black people with a slave mentality. There are those who do not wish to see us as equals in the society. So generation after generation of Black people have been corrupted with a slave mentality and generation after generation of White people have been poisoned with the doctrine of White supremacy. However, the presence of truth condemns both mindsets.”

Activists said South Carolina exposed and pointed to a bigger, systemic problem. 

“This incident was an incident of terrorism in the classroom,” said Attorney Hill. (Andrea Muhammad contributed to this report.)