Viral videos of a white sheriff’s deputy upending and dragging an uncooperative black girl in a high school classroom have played into a contentious national issue with particular resonance here — the intersection of race and school discipline and whether black students are disproportionately punished.
The incident, which the Justice Department said Tuesday that it would investigate, follows a set of national studies showing that black students were far more likely than whites to be disciplined in public schools, even for comparable offenses.
The issue was receiving intense scrutiny here long before the videos released Monday.
Last year, the racial divide in the Richland School District Two, which encompasses parts of this city and its suburbs, led to the formation of the Black Parents Association, a role in a divisive campaign between rival slates for the district’s board of education. Complaints of excessive — and racially disparate — disciplinary action had been a major concern for the district for years, leading the district to form a task force last year to examine conduct policies and penalties.
The videos, which quickly went viral, showed a sheriff’s deputy assigned as a school safety officer to Spring Valley High School, addressing a 16-year-old girl who had refused to stand and leave her math class, after her teacher reportedly caught her using her phone. The deputy, Ben Fields, tipped her chair and desk over backward, lifting her out of her seat and slamming her to the floor, and then dragged her to the front of the classroom, where he cuffed her hands behind her back.
His action drew quick condemnation from many quarters. Sheriff Leon Lott of Richland County placed the deputy on leave with pay and asked federal authorities to investigate.
Sheriff Lott said Tuesday evening that investigators had reviewed a video — the third to emerge since the episode — that showed the student “hitting” Deputy Fields “with her fists and striking him.”
But Sheriff Lott, who said he was “very disturbed” by what happened, said that he was more focused on the deputy’s conduct than the student’s.
“Even though she was wrong for disturbing the class, even though she refused to abide by the directions of the teacher, the school administrator and also the verbal commands of our deputy, I’m looking at what our deputy did,” Sheriff Lott said.
The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, along with the F.B.I. and the United States attorney for South Carolina, said they would look into the incident. Hillary Rodham Clinton tweeted, “The #AssaultAtSpringValleyHigh is unacceptable.” James Manning, the chairman of the district’s board of trustees, said, “The amount of force used on a female student by a male officer appears to me to be excessive and unnecessary.”
In Richland Two, where 59 percent of students are black, 77 percent of those suspended at least once in 2011-12 were black, according to figures compiled by the Justice Department, though comparison of the offenses involved was not readily available. And South Carolina, including Richland, relies much more on suspension than the nation as a whole; 24 percent of public school students in the state were suspended at least once that year, compared with 13 percent nationwide.
The Richland Two Black Parents Association has criticized the district for disciplinary policies that it calls arbitrary, and that some members believe disproportionately affect African-American students, said Stephen Mr. Gilchrist, one of the founding members. He said the group was formed in early 2014 to increase African-American representation among the school district’s leadership, and address cultural tensions in a racially mixed district.
The district’s population is 46 percent black and 44 percent white, and before the elections in November 2014, whites held a 4-3 majority on the school board.
As the Black Parents group became more visible last year, and its members promoted African-American candidates for school board, a rival group emerged, called the Bi-Partisan Committee, Its seven principal members were white, and it sponsored a slate of three whites and one black candidate for the board.
John Hudgens, a former superintendent of the district who retired in 1994, was a leader of the Bi-Partisan Committee and said Tuesday that one of the group’s chief concerns was that the black group was trying to force the district to hire on the basis of race rather than talent. He and George Shissias, who was involved with the Bi-Partisan Committee, said the black parents group had explicitly called for the removal of white administrators — a claim Mr. Gilchrist denies.
The Bi-Partisan Committee sent a flyer that, Mr. Shissias said, criticized the black parents group for overemphasizing race. Among other things, the flyer noted a black board member’s censure for reportedly threatening a grandson’s coach.
The Black Parents group responded on its website, saying that the other group’s tactics were reminiscent of the White Citizens Councils that resisted desegregation in the 1960s. “This is about wanting to keep an apartheid system in place for Richland Two,” the website said.
Of the four contested at-large seats, three were won by the Bi-Partisan Committee’s favored candidates, including their black candidate. The school board now has four black and three white members.
Last August, the district’s task force on student misconduct recommended the adoption of policies specifying “a consistent set of consequences for infractions at each level,” and using “a system to empower students to take ownership and responsibility for their choices.”
Such a system, the task force said, would “give them a voice while at the same time protecting the instructional environment.”
The number of students suspended actually understates the use of suspensions, because many students are suspended more than once in the course of a year. The district suspended about 5,800 of its 26,000 students in 2011-12, but there were over 10,000 suspensions. Last year, that figure was down to 8,800 suspensions.
“We are trending in the right direction,” Roosevelt Garrick Jr., the district’s chief administrative officer, told the school board in August. At the time, Mr. Garrick said officials were still evaluating whether Richland 2’s disciplinary record was similar to those of similarly sized districts.
In 2011-12, when Spring Valley High School had an enrollment of nearly 2,100 students, administrators issued 661 suspensions, nearly one for every three students. Although black people made up 54 percent of the student body at Spring Valley, they received more than 70 percent of the suspensions.
At Spring Valley, reactions to the videos varied, as did views of Deputy Fields, who is also the defensive line coach and strength coach for the school’s football team.
Click here to read more.
SOURCE: NY Times, Richard Fausset, Richard Perez-Pena and Alan Blinder