DOJ opens civil rights probe into S.C. classroom arrest

Last Updated Oct 27, 2015 4:18 PM EDT

COLUMBIA, S.C. - The Department of Justice announced Tuesday it had launched an investigation into possible civil rights violations during a violent arrest in a South Carolina classroom that was caught on video and his since gone viral.

In a statement, the FBI field office in South Carolina said they "will collect all available facts and evidence in order to determine whether a federal law was violated."

The school resource officer involved in the incident, Ben Fields, was placed on leave after his boss asked the feds to investigate the incident in which he flipped a black female high school student from her desk to the floor and either dragged or tossed her across a classroom.

Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said by telephone Tuesday: "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."

No one was hurt in Monday's confrontation, which authorities and some witnesses said happened after the disruptive student refused the officer's order to leave the classroom. The incident was captured on cellphones by several students, one of whom, Tony Robinson Jr., told CBS affiliate WLTX in Columbia it all started when the girl pulled out her cellphone and refused her math teacher's attempt to take it away during class.

CBS News' Omar Villafranca reports the confrontation started just after 10:30 a.m. when the female student repeatedly refused requests by her teacher and assistant principal to put away her cellphone during class.

That's when the administrator called in Deputy Fields.

Aaron Johnson, 15, was sitting a few desks away. "It seemed really violent. It was really, really hard to watch."

During the moments captured on video and posted online, Fields can be seen standing over the girl, asking her to stand up. The girl remains seated and the officer wraps a forearm around her neck. The desk then flips and the girl is slammed backward onto the floor, where the officer tosses her toward the front of the classroom and handcuffs her. A second student who verbally objected to the girl's treatment also was arrested.

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Deputy Ben Fields has been put on administrative duty pending an investigation.

Both girls were charged with disturbing schools and released to their parents. Their names were not released, but the second student, Niya Kenny, told WLTX that Deputy Fields' use of force shocked her.

School officials are using terms like "outrageous," ''reprehensible" and "disturbing" to describe the deputy's takedown of the female high school student. The Richland District District Two has asked for an independent state police review.

Richland School District Two Superintendent Dr. Debbie Hamm said during a press conference on Tuesday, that in her 40 years with the district, this was one of the most upsetting incidents she had ever seen.

"This event should not define Richland School District Two," she said.

Jeff Temoney is the principal at Spring Valley High School where the incident occurred. He said when he watched the video it hit him in the gut.

"Our district and our school have zero tolerance for what occurred," he said.

Temoney said he met with the students in that classroom on Tuesday morning. The district said it will be implementing new training as a result of this incident.

Niya Kenny, 18, told CBS affiliate WLTX in Columbia, "I was screaming, 'What the f, what the f is this really happening?' I was praying out loud for the girl. I just couldn't believe this was happening I was just crying and he said, 'Since you have so much to say, you are coming, too.' I just put my hands behind my back."

Kenny was charged with disturbing schools, the station reports.

Her mother, Doris Kenny, asked, "Who was really disturbing schools? Was it my daughter or the officer who came in to the classroom and did that to the young girl?"

Her mother, Doris Kenny, said she's proud her daughter was "brave enough to speak out against what was going on."

Robinson Jr. said the incident made him afraid for his life.

"I've never seen anything so nasty looking, so sick to the point that you know, other students are turning away, don't know what to do, and are just scared for their lives," he said. "That's supposed to be somebody that's going to protect us. Not somebody that we need to be scare off, or afraid."

"That was wrong. There was no justifiable reason for why he did that to that girl," Robinson added.

Robinson claimed Officer Fields escalated the incident unnecessarily. At first, Robinson said he told the girl, "you will move, you will move."

"She said, 'No, I have not done anything wrong," according to Robinson. "Then he said, 'I'm going to treat you fairly.' And she said, 'I don't even know who you are.' And that is where it started right there."

Moments later, things turned physical.

Lt. Curtis Wilson confirmed that Fields is white and the students are black, but told The Associated Press in an email to "keep in mind this is not a race issue."

South Carolina's NAACP president, Lonnie Randolph Jr., denied that, saying "race is indeed a factor."

"To be thrown out of her seat as she was thrown, and dumped on the floor ... I don't ever recall a female student who is not of color (being treated this way). It doesn't affect white students," Randolph said.

After watching the video, Sheriff Lott said, he was left asking, "Why?"

"I shake my head and just say ... I ask why, and that's what I want to know. I want to know why something like that happened," he said.

Officer Ben Fields has been accused of excessive force and racial bias before, but has prevailed in court so far. Trial is set for January in the case of an expelled student who claims Fields targeted black students and falsely accused him of being a gang member in 2013. In another case, a federal jury sided with Fields after a black couple accused him of excessive force and battery during a noise complaint arrest in 2005. A third lawsuit, dismissed in 2009, involved a woman who accused him of battery and violating her rights during a 2006 arrest.

Executive Director of the ACLU of South Carolina Victoria Middleton told CBS News that oversight of police in schools is a question, and called it anything but a "one-off" incident in the state.

"We need to ask questions about how discipline is being enforced in all our schools statewide," Middleton said. "We're really criminalizing childhood behavior."

Districts across the county began placing officers in schools after two teenagers massacred their fellow students at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.

Experts say lines have blurred since then, as administrators summon in-house police officers to implement routine discipline.

Police are "trained to fight criminals," said John Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit civil liberties and human rights organization. "Kids are not criminals, by the way. When they won't get up, when they won't put up the phone, they're silly, disobedient kids - not criminals."

Police officers should be posted at entrances to "stop the crazies from getting in these schools," Whitehead added. "When you have police in the schools, you're going to run into this - having police do what teachers and parents should do."

The incident in South Carolina calls to mind a similar one earlier this month, when a school resource officer in Texas was caught on tape grabbing a 14-year-old boy's throat and slamming him to the ground after the student and another boy were involved in a scuffle in a high school cafeteria.

A cellphone video taken by a third student showed the officer placing his hands around sophomore Gyasi Hughes' neck at Round Rock High School and taking Hughes to the ground.

Hughes, who was suspended for fighting but not charged, told KEYE-TV that the officer also pushed him.

Hughes' friend, Sebastian Vazquez, said the two boys were never actually fighting, and things got more tense when the two school officers showed up. "Both cops got him in the corner, so I pulled my phone out to start recording because that seemed odd," said Vazquez.